In recent years, Washington is a state that has become increasingly known for draconian governmental policies on everything from taxation to land use, and it is no wonder that many defensively minded folks have such a negative opinion of the place.
However, as it turns out Washington has surprisingly solid laws concerning self-defense, and even though not strictly codified as such, it has statutes on the books that are the functional equivalent of the castle doctrine statutes found in other states.
In short, so long as an occupant of a home or other dwelling is attempting to stop the unlawful use of force against themselves or another person by an attacker, or attempting to thwart any felony committed against them or the residents they are occupying then lethal defensive force is justified with no obligation to retreat.
But, a cursory reading of Washington state statutes might not give you that impression at first glance. Read on to learn what you need to know about Washington’s laws concerning self-defense in the home.
- Washington state law considers homicide justifiable whenever it is committed in defense of self, family, or a third party to prevent the risk of death or great bodily injury or to prevent the commission or imminent commission of a felony.
- Washington state law does not specify any duty to retreat prior to using force in defense of one’s home or other dwellings.
- A person who has used justifiable force in self-defense will likely still be tried in a court of law after the fact, and whether or not their actions were reasonable will be considered by a jury.
Overview of Castle Doctrine Law in Washington
For all of its bluster in other regards, Washington state law concerning the use of lethal force in self-defense, what they call justifiable homicide, is quite succinct.
Section 98.16.050 states that homicide is justifiable and self-defense when the person using lethal force does so in defense of themselves, a family member, or a third party in their presence or company when it is reasonably necessary in order to prevent the commission of a felony or to prevent the risk of death or great bodily injury at the hands of the attacker.
The use of lethal force in self-defense is also justifiable to prevent the commission or imminent commission of a felony upon the defender, upon their dwelling, or inside their dwelling or any other place of abode.
Notably, the law does not specify anywhere an obligation to retreat or to attempt retreat prior to using lethal force and self-defense.
However, residents in Washington may still be arrested and tried even in clear-cut cases of self-defense, and a jury will then decide the reasonableness, or lack of reasonableness, on the part of the defender.
No other restrictions.
Whatever else you might think about Washington’s laws, they are quite clear in matters of self-defense in and around the home or other dwelling.
Citizens have the right to defend themselves, their families, and any other occupants against the use or imminent use of unlawful force against themselves or the commission or imminent commission of felonies. There is no duty to retreat specified in Washington law.
Relevant Washington Castle Doctrine Statutes
In this title unless a different meaning plainly is required:
(4)(a) “Bodily injury,” “physical injury,” or “bodily harm” means physical pain or injury, illness, or an impairment of physical condition;
(b) “Substantial bodily harm” means bodily injury which involves a temporary but substantial disfigurement, or which causes a temporary but substantial loss or impairment of the function of any bodily part or organ, or which causes a fracture of any bodily part;
(c) “Great bodily harm” means bodily injury which creates a probability of death, or which causes significant serious permanent disfigurement, or which causes a significant permanent loss or impairment of the function of any bodily part or organ;
(5) “Building,” in addition to its ordinary meaning, includes any dwelling, fenced area, vehicle, railway car, cargo container, or any other structure used for lodging of persons or for carrying on business therein, or for the use, sale, or deposit of goods; each unit of a building consisting of two or more units separately secured or occupied is a separate building;
(6) “Deadly weapon” means any explosive or loaded or unloaded firearm, and shall include any other weapon, device, instrument, article, or substance, including a “vehicle” as defined in this section, which, under the circumstances in which it is used, attempted to be used, or threatened to be used, is readily capable of causing death or substantial bodily harm;
(7) “Dwelling” means any building or structure, though movable or temporary, or a portion thereof, which is used or ordinarily used by a person for lodging;
(12) “Malice” and “maliciously” shall import an evil intent, wish, or design to vex, annoy, or injure another person. Malice may be inferred from an act done in willful disregard of the rights of another, or an act wrongfully done without just cause or excuse, or an act or omission of duty betraying a willful disregard of social duty;
(14) “Omission” means a failure to act;
(18) “Place of work” includes but is not limited to all the lands and other real property of a farm or ranch in the case of an actor who owns, operates, or is employed to work on such a farm or ranch;
(22) “Property” means anything of value, whether tangible or intangible, real or personal;
(28) “Threat” means to communicate, directly or indirectly the intent:
(a) To cause bodily injury in the future to the person threatened or to any other person; or
(b) To cause physical damage to the property of a person other than the actor; or
(c) To subject the person threatened or any other person to physical confinement or restraint; or
(d) To accuse any person of a crime or cause criminal charges to be instituted against any person; or
(e) To expose a secret or publicize an asserted fact, whether true or false, tending to subject any person to hatred, contempt, or ridicule; or
(f) To reveal any information sought to be concealed by the person threatened; or
(g) To testify or provide information or withhold testimony or information with respect to another’s legal claim or defense; or
(h) To take wrongful action as an official against anyone or anything, or wrongfully withhold official action, or cause such action or withholding; or
(i) To bring about or continue a strike, boycott, or other similar collective action to obtain property which is not demanded or received for the benefit of the group which the actor purports to represent; or
(j) To do any other act which is intended to harm substantially the person threatened or another with respect to his or her health, safety, business, financial condition, or personal relationships;
(29) “Vehicle” means a “motor vehicle” as defined in the vehicle and traffic laws, any aircraft, or any vessel equipped for propulsion by mechanical means or by sail;
(30) Words in the present tense shall include the future tense; and in the masculine shall include the feminine and neuter genders; and in the singular shall include the plural; and in the plural shall include the singular.
RCW 9A.16.010 Definitions.
In this chapter, unless a different meaning is plainly required:
(1) “Necessary” means that no reasonably effective alternative to the use of force appeared to exist and that the amount of force used was reasonable to effect the lawful purpose intended.
(2) “Deadly force” means the intentional application of force through the use of firearms or any other means reasonably likely to cause death or serious physical injury.
RCW 9A.16.020 Use of force—When lawful.
The use, attempt, or offer to use force upon or toward the person of another is not unlawful in the following cases:
(1) Whenever necessarily used by a public officer in the performance of a legal duty, or a person assisting the officer and acting under the officer’s direction;
(2) Whenever necessarily used by a person arresting one who has committed a felony and delivering him or her to a public officer competent to receive him or her into custody;
(3) Whenever used by a party about to be injured, or by another lawfully aiding him or her, in preventing or attempting to prevent an offense against his or her person, or a malicious trespass, or other malicious interference with real or personal property lawfully in his or her possession, in case the force is not more than is necessary;
(4) Whenever reasonably used by a person to detain someone who enters or remains unlawfully in a building or on real property lawfully in the possession of such person, so long as such detention is reasonable in duration and manner to investigate the reason for the detained person’s presence on the premises, and so long as the premises in question did not reasonably appear to be intended to be open to members of the public;
(5) Whenever used by a carrier of passengers or the carrier’s authorized agent or servant, or other person assisting them at their request in expelling from a carriage, railway car, vessel, or other vehicle, a passenger who refuses to obey a lawful and reasonable regulation prescribed for the conduct of passengers, if such vehicle has first been stopped and the force used is not more than is necessary to expel the offender with reasonable regard to the offender’s personal safety;
(6) Whenever used by any person to prevent a mentally ill, mentally incompetent, or mentally disabled person from committing an act dangerous to any person, or in enforcing necessary restraint for the protection or restoration to health of the person, during such period only as is necessary to obtain legal authority for the restraint or custody of the person.
9A.16.050 Homicide—By other person—When justifiable.
Homicide is also justifiable when committed either:
(1) In the lawful defense of the slayer, or his or her husband, wife, parent, child, brother, or sister, or of any other person in his or her presence or company, when there is reasonable ground to apprehend a design on the part of the person slain to commit a felony or to do some great personal injury to the slayer or to any such person, and there is imminent danger of such design being accomplished; or
(2) In the actual resistance of an attempt to commit a felony upon the slayer, in his or her presence, or upon or in a dwelling, or other place of abode, in which he or she is.
9A.16.110 Defending against violent crime—Reimbursement.
(1) No person in the state shall be placed in legal jeopardy of any kind whatsoever for protecting by any reasonable means necessary, himself or herself, his or her family, or his or her real or personal property, or for coming to the aid of another who is in imminent danger of or the victim of assault, robbery, kidnapping, arson, burglary, rape, murder, or any other violent crime as defined in RCW 9.94A.030.
(2) When a person charged with a crime listed in subsection (1) of this section is found not guilty by reason of self-defense, the state of Washington shall reimburse the defendant for all reasonable costs, including loss of time, legal fees incurred, and other expenses involved in his or her defense. This reimbursement is not an independent cause of action. To award these reasonable costs the trier of fact must find that the defendant’s claim of self-defense was sustained by a preponderance of the evidence. If the trier of fact makes a determination of self-defense, the judge shall determine the amount of the award.
(3) Notwithstanding a finding that a defendant’s actions were justified by self-defense, if the trier of fact also determines that the defendant was engaged in criminal conduct substantially related to the events giving rise to the charges filed against the defendant the judge may deny or reduce the amount of the award. In determining the amount of the award, the judge shall also consider the seriousness of the initial criminal conduct.
Nothing in this section precludes the legislature from using the sundry claims process to grant an award where none was granted under this section or to grant a higher award than one granted under this section.
(4) Whenever the issue of self-defense under this section is decided by a judge, the judge shall consider the same questions as must be answered in the special verdict under subsection (4) [(5)] of this section.
(5) Whenever the issue of self-defense under this section has been submitted to a jury, and the jury has found the defendant not guilty, the court shall instruct the jury to return a special verdict in substantially the following form:
answer yes or no
1. Was the finding of not guilty based upon self-defense?
. . . . .
2. If your answer to question 1 is no, do not answer the remaining question.
3. If your answer to question 1 is yes, was the defendant:
a. Protecting himself or herself?
. . . . .
b. Protecting his or her family?
. . . . .
c. Protecting his or her property?
. . . . .
d. Coming to the aid of another who was in imminent danger of a heinous crime?
. . . . .
e. Coming to the aid of another who was the victim of a heinous crime?
. . . . .
f. Engaged in criminal conduct substantially related to the events giving rise to the crime with which the defendant is charged?
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.