It’s 3AM and you find yourself lying awake beside your spouse in the darkness. You’d swear you heard a noise, but was it real or a dream? You bolt upright as you hear it again – the unmistakable sound of breaking glass. In an instant, you’re at the closet, reaching for that box you hoped you’d never open and removing your gun. You ease out of the bedroom and around the corner and suddenly, you see him, climbing through your living room window. At the same moment he locks his eyes on you and raises what looks like a gun. Instinctively, you level your own weapon and you fire.
Are you guilty of murder? The answer is most certainly no. But the answer isn’t as simple as you might think.
To convict a person of murder or voluntary manslaughter based on the use of deadly force against another person who is attempting to enter his home, the State is required to negate that person’s claim of self-defense. Under South Carolina law, a person is justified in using deadly force in self-defense if: (1) he was without fault in bringing on the difficulty; (2) he was in danger of losing his life or of sustaining serious bodily injury or he actually believed such; (3) if his defense is based on belief, his belief was not unreasonable or, if his defense is based on actual danger, the circumstances would warrant the fatal blow; and (4) he had no other probable means of avoiding the danger of losing his own life or sustaining serious bodily injury than to act as he did.
The fourth element is generally referred to as the “duty to retreat,” and is the main element of self-defense affected by the fact that the use of deadly force took place in one’s home. A long-standing rule of law is that a person has a duty to retreat, if he can do so safely, before using deadly force. However, another long-standing rule, known as the Castle Doctrine, provides that a person generally has no duty to retreat in his own home. The effect of this is to remove the fourth element in establishing self-defense.
The Castle Doctrine is based on the idea that a person’s home is his castle, and that no person should be required to retreat from his home in the face of attack. The doctrine evolved in the common law, as handed down by the courts, but was recently codified by the General Assembly. The new law provides that it shall be presumed that a person had a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily injury to himself (satisfying elements (2) and (3), above) if the person against whom the deadly force is used is in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering or has unlawfully or forcefully entered a home.
So, the short version of the Castle Doctrine is that if you are acting lawfully and use deadly force against a person who is or is in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering your home, then you are protected from conviction because you are acting in self-defense.