Could I Be Prosecuted for Defending Myself in My Own Home?
October 26, 2018
Self-defense might seem like it should be pretty cut and dry, especially when it applies to your home. You might think that if someone tries to harm you in your home, you have full authority to protect yourself by any means. However, the extent to which you can defend yourself can vary based on the laws in your area.
Defending Your Property vs. Defending Your Life
If you woke up to someone breaking into your home and stealing your goods, you might think that you can attack them to any necessary extent. And in Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground states, it is true that you have no legal duty to retreat before engaging. However, you still must meet the other four requirements for a justified claim of self defense: imminence, innocence, proportionality, and reasonableness.
Most jurisdictions make a distinction between "highly defensible" property and ordinary property. The difference basically boils down to whether a piece of property is occupied. In other words, in order to use force in defense of property, the threat must be to human life, not to mere possessions. Excessive use of force when defending ordinary property could result in prosecution claims laid against you. Eric Ramos explains that, "the law allows for individuals to use force to protect themselves and their property, however, this right isn’t absolute. It’s well known among lawyers and law students that deadly force is never justified to protect property." No matter how much you love certain possessions, it's not worth being arrested to hurt someone over them.
Stand Your Ground?
Contrary to what you've read in the news, SYG laws do one thing and one thing only: they relieve you from an otherwise-existing duty to retreat. While most states have adopted the SYG doctrine (either in statute form or case law), 15 states still require you to utilize a safe avenue of retreat before engaging in use of force. If you live in a "stand your ground" state, have a plan for defending yourself in the event of a threat. If you live in a "duty to retreat" state, be aware that a prosecutor has one more tool to use against you, even if you sincerely believe yourself to be the good guy.
Quick note: even in SYG states like Utah, prosecutors can still argue that even though you have no legal duty to retreat, a reasonable person would have. Therefore, even if your self-defense claim doesn't fail on the grounds of "avoidance," it may still fail on the grounds of "reasonableness." Remember, according to Attorney Andrew Branca (the source of most of my research): you need all five elements (immenence, innocense, proportionality, reasonableness, and avoidance) in order to justify your claim of self-defense.
Besides, whether you are legally required to or not, you should always retreat from a dangerous situation if you can safely do so.
You wouldn't respond to a slap by pulling out a gun. Whatever force you return with should be equal to the force or threat being presented. This is the principle of proportionality. You can never use more force than is necessary to end the threat. As martial artists, we may be held to an even higher standard; a prosecutor can argue that our training should enable us to use less force to disable the threat. That said, if a threat posed is deadly in nature (it puts you in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily harm), self-defense up to and including deadly force is authorized as long as the threat remains imminent.
FindLaw affirms, “any force used against an intruder must usually be proportionate to harm that is reasonably perceived. If you act with a disproportionate response, this becomes what is referred to as imperfect self-defense.” For instance, you would only be justified in shooting someone if it could be reasonably determined that they were going to do something just as severe or worse to you. The anger you're feeling might cloud your judgment, but you need to keep in mind the consequences of responding too severely.
Were You Actually in Danger?
Claiming self-defense isn't always going to be a justifiable legal defense. If you see someone on your property, you can't just attack them. It could be that they were confused and ended up at your home by accident. If you believe someone might try to break in, get yourself to safety and call the proper authorities to deal with it.
Your skills with martial arts can be an asset when it comes to self-defense. You just need to make sure you understand what is exactly at stake when you defend yourself. Review the laws in your area and comply with them. Your safety is not something to be viewed lightly, and that includes keeping yourself legally protected.