“For a man’s house is his castle, et domus sua cuique est tutissimum refugium” [and each man’s home is his safest refuge] —Sir Edward Coke, in The Institutes of the Laws of England
On March 5, 2009, Jason Rivenburg stopped to rest at an abandoned gas station in South Carolina. Sometime during that rest, he was ambushed and shot to death by an armed robber in the cab of his truck. Willie Pelzer was later arrested, convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole.
How different would the charges have been if Jason had been the one to shoot the armed intruder? Would he have been charged with the murder of Willie Pelzer? Would Castle Law have applied in this instance?
Established by Sir Edward Coke (pronounced “Cook”) as English common law in 1628, a man’s right to refuse entry to his home was actually referenced as general practice as far back as 1581 and has roots in Roman law.
Castle Doctrine as adopted by the colonists quickly dropped any mention of England or the King and eventually provisions were made for the Fourth Amendment, which is also an offspring of original versions of the law.
For people who live in places other than stationary homes, like the cabs of commercial vehicles, the question of what an “abode” is defined as becomes the point when invoking Castle Law. Some states extend your right to defend yourself to your vehicle, place of business, and basically anything else that has a roof on it. These rights not only protect you from criminal prosecution, but civil action as well.
South Carolina has a self-defense law based on the castle doctrine. The law permits the use of physical force, including deadly force, when persons are attacked in a place they have a right to be, including their place of business. Jason would have been well within his rights to use deadly force that night.
Most states have a legislative reference to Castle doctrine, and each differs in the way it incorporates it into law. In 1985, Colorado put into effect the Homeowner Protection Act (also referred to as the “make my day”law – a direct reference to the famous Dirty Harry line), which gave Colorado residents the right to shoot and kill an intruder if they believed the person intended to commit a crime and/or use physical force, no matter how slight. Typical conditions specified by other states that must be proven to apply the laws include: self-defense during an attempt of unlawful or forcible intrusion into an occupied residence, as well as a reasonable belief intruders intend to do physical harm or commit any other felonies while in the residence.
Some states have a “Duty to Retreat” specification in their home protection laws, which require the victim to be pinned down with no other option of self-defense (such as running away) before resorting to lethal force.
In every interpretation, the ability to avoid prosecution requires that the resident of the abode be there legally and not a fugitive of the law, and must not use force upon an officer of the law performing a legal duty.
Currently, all but four states and the District of Columbia have specifically stated Castle Laws. New Mexico, Nebraska and Vermont uphold the general principal, but rely on case law rather than specific legislation to determine culpability. South Dakota has a law on the books, but it’s oddly specific about murder having to be the intention of the aggressor, instead of a general abode protection rule.
Wikipedia offers a list of states with Castle Law, as well as quoting the laws in entirety, accessible via this link. As with anything on Wikipedia, the information is subject to change, and it is not suggested for use as a legal reference or in lieu of professional advice from an attorney.