Castle Doctrine Laws in the USA – An Overview

When discussing self-defense, most people instinctively understand that if they’re attacked, they generally have a right to defend themselves.

But as you go down the path of mastery, you will soon find out that matters are anything but simple depending on where you live.

flag of the united states

Each and every state in the US has its own requirements and laws regarding precisely when you are able to employ force and self-defense, what degree of force you’re justified in using, and what a reasonable person must do prior to using that force. It’s infuriating, but that’s just the way it is…

But there is a common law concept known as castle doctrine that informs the self-defense laws of most states.

Broadly speaking, castle doctrine gives you the right to stand your ground and defend yourself in your own home or business, and much of the time and any other place you have a legal, lawful right to be.

Often quoted, but much more rarely understood or discussed in the proper context, you’ll need to know about this important legal concept as a serious student of self-defense.

Keep reading and I’ll give you an overview…

The Castle Doctrine DOESN'T Give You...

What are Castle Doctrine Laws?

Castle doctrine is a concept, or more accurately a legal doctrine that states that any person’s home or habitation, be it permanent or temporary, is a place where that person should enjoy and expect certain protections and even immunities if they are forced to employ force in self-defense of themselves or others in the habitation, including lethal force.

What’s the Intention of Castle Doctrine Laws?

The concept gets its name from the notion that “a man’s home is his castle”. And the function of any castle is to protect the occupants from those who would invade or breach it.

Basically, under most state interpretations of castle doctrine, if you are attacked with unlawful force in your home, or even if someone merely breaks into your home using force, the state presupposes that a genuine fear of life exists and a defender may respond using force, including lethal force, without fear of prosecution by the state.

In short, you should expect complete safety in your own home or any other lodging that you legally occupy, and you shouldn’t be forced to endure a threat to life or limb, be it your own or a family member’s, from any obligation to retreat or anything else under the law.

But to be perfectly clear, castle doctrine laws as a concept, whether or not they are called as much in state statutes, are typically affirmative defenses for defenders who are charged with criminal homicide in the aftermath of a self-defense encounter, in or out of the home.

I’ll expand more on that in a few sections, but keep this in mind: castle doctrine laws are never a license to kill or use force when it is unwarranted!

Are Castle Doctrine Laws the Same as Stand-Your-Ground Laws?

Castle doctrine laws have much in common with stand-your-ground laws, so much so that the terms are sometimes used interchangeably though they are, properly, distinct concepts.

Castle doctrine specifically refers to defense of self in a habitation, that is an abode or domicile that is permanently or temporarily occupied, so long as it is occupied legally.

This generally means your home, your place of business, a hotel room, and locations like that.

Note that under castle doctrine, a defender doesn’t have an obligation to retreat so long as they are attacked in any of these places that they legally occupy.

Stand-your-ground laws are a separate concept but one that is sort of built into castle doctrine.

Stand-your-ground laws that specify that a defender has no obligation to the state to retreat or to attempt to retreat before resorting to force in defense so long as they are attacked in any place that they have a lawful right to be.

For instance, this could be at a restaurant or in the parking lot of a restaurant, coming out of a movie theater, somewhere on a sidewalk in town, or literally any place else as long as they are there legally.

Stand-your-ground laws are important concepts because any defender that faces an obligation to retreat or to attempt retreat before resorting to force will often expose themselves and anyone they would protect to a greater risk of harm or death when attacked.

Consider that once a person realizes there is a genuine threat to their life or there is a risk of serious bodily injury, it’s usually too late to attempt to disengage without risking further harm.

Basically, it is forcing the hand of the defender into taking action that might make the situation worse for themselves.

“Just running away” is not easy, not guaranteed to succeed, and in no way does it guarantee that the defender will not be harmed by the actions of a criminal attacker.

Those that think so are brainless. That’s why castle doctrine and stand-your-ground laws are so important.

Does Castle Doctrine Law Apply Everywhere in the US?

No. There are but a few states in the US that do not have an institutional form of castle doctrine.

Happily, though, the vast majority of states do; either as codified law on the books, or through the use of strong case precedent or jury instructions depending on the circumstances associated with the incident

That being said, various state interpretations will definitely dictate your self-defense planning, training and response so it is up to you too thoroughly familiarize yourself with the laws of the state you live in:

NevadaNew HampshireNew Jersey
New MexicoNew YorkNorth Carolina
North DakotaOhioOklahoma
OregonPennsylvaniaRhode Island
South CarolinaSouth DakotaTennessee
VirginiaWashingtonWashington D.C.
West VirginiaWisconsinWyoming

Accordingly, you’ll definitely want to talk to an attorney who is fluent in self-defense law as part of your preparations.

State Interpretations and Applications of Castle Doctrine Do Vary

There can be some significant variations in the interpretation and application of castle doctrine even in states that explicitly feature it in their statutes.

For instance, some states will have a duty to retreat everywhere except in your own home or domicile, such as New York or Maine.

This means that you still have an obligation to attempt to get away when you’re attacked in public or even at your place of business prior to resorting to force in defense.

Other states, however, are far more permissive in their interpretation of castle doctrine and have no obligation to retreat from any place you legally, lawfully have a right to be.

This is actually the rule in most states, and includes the entirety of the American South and much of the Southwest, reaching from South Carolina down to Florida and all the way west to Texas, Arizona, and Nevada.

Note that some states in the southwest implement castle doctrine and stand-your-ground legal concepts by jury instruction or prior judicial decisions.

And then you’ve got some other states like Hawaii where you have an obligation to attempt to retreat unless you are in your own home or workplace.

This means you might not even be able to resort to force immediately if you’re being ripped out of your car by a carjacker!

These are a few examples, but one thing you cannot do is assume that castle doctrine is in any way uniform across the US!

You’ll be happy to learn we have a whole bunch of detailed, state-by-state guides on castle doctrine right here on Survival Sullivan to help you make sense of it and get you started.

Does Castle Doctrine Mean You Can Use Lethal Force Against a Trespasser?

It depends, but generally a defender is allowed to use lethal force against an intruder if there is the reasonable belief or presupposition that the intruder intends to inflict great bodily harm or death upon any occupant of the home or other domicile, or if they intended to commit a forcible felony.

Like I said above, castle doctrine is not a license to kill just because someone is on your property or, in some states, even in your home.

This is where the nuances of each and every state’s castle doctrine must be parsed in detail so that you can plan your own responses to various scenarios.

There Might Still Be a Burden of Reasonableness or Subjective

If you learn nothing else from this article, learn this: you do not necessarily have the right to use force, and especially lethal force, against someone just because they are on your property or in your home.

It doesn’t matter necessarily if they are there with criminal intent. All of your actions will need to be justified according to the laws of your state.

Consider the following. You’ll usually see some interaction between the following concepts in states where castle doctrine is strongly ensconced in the law:

Any intruder or attacker must be acting unlawfully, one way or the other, before you’re allowed to use force against them.

Said another way, any agent or employee of the state that is carrying out their lawfully ordered duties cannot be stopped by you and then you claim castle doctrine.

Another common precept is that any intruder, acting unlawfully, must make forcible entry into the occupied structure, be attempting forcible entry when engaged or have already made forcible entry prior to being engaged.

One of the most common and most important concepts associated with castle doctrine from state to state is that the defender must reasonably believe that the attacker intends to kill or inflict serious bodily harm on themselves or on any other person in the home.

This is what is known as the “reasonable person” standard in common parlance…

Would a reasonable person placed in the same circumstances as the defender reach the same conclusion that the use of force in defense, and lethal force in particular, was necessary to stop the use of unlawful force by the attacker?

Lastly, as mentioned above, to invoke castle doctrine, whatever its actual legal status in a given state, the defender must not be a criminal themselves, not engaged in a criminal activity, not a fugitive from justice, and must not have done anything to provoke or instigate the actions taken by the attacker.

Depending on where you live, some or all of these concepts might apply and be in force as law!

Are You Protected from Prosecution Under Castle Doctrine Laws?

Sometimes. Castle doctrine is typically an affirmative defense, but statutorily, it might provide immunity from prosecution if certain facts surrounding the circumstances are found to be true.

Similarly, the stand-your-ground component of many states’ laws will provide similar protection from prosecution, sometimes including civil prosecution, in various circumstances.

However, you’re making a grave mistake if you assume that just because a state has castle doctrine in force as law, that you will not be facing a lengthy, expensive and life-alteringly stressful legal event in the aftermath of any major self-defense encounter.

Never, ever assume that you will be cleared at the scene of any wrongdoing just because you’re forced to shoot someone inside your own home or business!

How Many States Have Castle Doctrine Laws on the Books?

At present, the vast majority of US states have castle doctrine in place as a legal concept, either directly in the form of statutes or indirectly in the form of judicial opinion or jury instructions.

However, there are a few states or territories left that can be said to have flimsy or subpar implementation and it is much quicker to list them than to list all the states that have strong castle doctrine as law.

Note, that some states may have functional castle doctrine, but also institute a duty to retreat in other areas outside the home, including a place of business. That is an entirely separate discussion!

States that have a somewhat flimsy version of castle doctrine include: California, which relies on somewhat weak jury instructions only, and Maryland, New Mexico, Oregon and Vermont which all depend on case law.

Castle Doctrine is Nearly a Constant in the US

In closing, you’ll find that castle doctrine as common law is almost a constant wherever you go or happen to live in the United States.

But, the interpretation and application of that concept can vary widely, and it’s up to every defensively-minded citizen to thoroughly research and understand the laws of the state in which you live.

Again, I urge you to consult with a competent attorney on the matter as part of your self-defense preparations: self-defense is serious business, as serious as it gets, and this is no place for assumptions!

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