What is Castle Doctrine?

I was in an online discussion today where the topic of Castle Doctrine came up and there were quite a few statements made exposing misconceptions about what it really means.

In Ohio, like many states, there are very specific circumstances when deadly force is “allowed” to be used. I put that in quotes because killing or intentionally seriously injuring another person is illegal. When you make a claim of self-defense, you are actually admitting to a crime! However, you are attempting to invoke an “affirmative defense” that excuses your actions. If you meet all of the criteria you are more likely to be found to be justified.

The first set of criteria they are looked at are referred to as Jeopardy, Ability, and Means. Jeopardy means you were in real danger of serious bodily harm or death.

Ability means that the other person had the capability to cause that serious bodily harm or death. An example of the difference is that a small, frail, 90-year-old man may wish to harm a fit, young man but does not possess the strength to do so. However, if that old man had a weapon (known as a force multiplier) now he has ability.

Means, also known as Opportunity, is being able to reach you with his Ability. For example, a person may intend to harm you and is armed with a gun but is threatening you on the phone. There may be Jeopardy and Ability but lacking the Means you can’t just hunt him down.

When it comes to proving Jeopardy, Ability, and Means the jury is allowed to take into account the circumstances and determine if it is reasonable that you had an honest belief that those criteria were met. An example: you’re walking through a park at night and a person come running at you, yelling and holding a large knife over their head. If you defend yourself and it is later discovered that the knife wasn’t real you will likely still have a self-defense claim. But, it does have to be reasonable in their mind. Simply saying “I was in fear for my life” is not enough!

All that said, there are other criteria that come into play as well. Such as you not having contributed to the situation escalating to a deadly force incident or be at fault for causing it. A prime example there is a bar fight. If you are found to have been mutual combatants and you pull a weapon and use it you are very unlikely to prevail with a self-defense claim. Another good example would be if you pull a knife on someone and he pulls a gun but you stab him before he can shoot you it isn’t going to be a valid self-defense claim because you caused the situation.

Now we finally arrive at the topic of this piece and that is the Duty to Retreat. In Ohio, you generally have a duty to attempt to escape from a potential deadly force incident before using deadly force. However, Castle Doctrine removes this requirement if you are in your home or vehicle. That’s all it does! All those other criteria still stand and will be evaluated to determine the lawfulness of your actions.

So to say, as I saw multiple times, that anyone you catch breaking into you house can be shot due to Castle Doctrine is not true. You will still have to prove (and claiming self-defense shifts the burden of proof from the prosecution to the defense) you were in, or had a reasonable and honest belief you were in, Jeopardy; that the other person had the Ability to cause serious bodily harm or death; and that he or she also possessed the Means to do so.

To help you visualize how this comes into play here are some real examples where deadly force was not justified:

  • A drunk came home to the wrong house and knocked what he thought was his own door down.
  • An elderly woman with dementia returned to her previous residence and was able to gain entry
  • A father heard a noise in the house at night and armed himself to investigate. He ended up shooting his son’s friend who was staying the night unbeknownst to the father.
  • A woman was home alone and heard someone enter the house, climb the stairs, and approach the bedroom. She fired a shot through the door, killing her husband who had returned from deployment and way trying to surprise her.

These are just a couple of examples of situations where Castle Doctrine will not save you from a homicide charge. Simply saying you were afraid (even if you really were!) is not enough. Use of deadly force is a serious matter and you owe it to yourself and your family to learn when it is prudent to use that force and when it is not.

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