Law of Self Defense “Case of the Week”: The Legal Boundary of Defending Your Home
Your Castle’s Moat: The Legal Boundary of Defending Your Home
This Case of the Week is the result of a North Carolina court of appeals decision handed down this week that involved, in part, the definition of “home” for “castle” or justified use-of-force purposes. (State v. Copley, 2019 N.C. App. LEXIS 394) (Thanks to the several members of the Law of Self Defense community who so promptly sent me this decision.)
As is true in many (but not all) states, North Carolina has several provisions favorable to a defender who uses defensive force in the context of highly-defensible property, such as one’s home.
Perhaps the most common special provision for use-of-force in the context of one’s “home” or “castle”, a provision shared by all 50 states, relieves the defender of an otherwise existing legal duty to retreat before defending oneself against an intruder in that “castle”—this is the proper definition of the term “Castle Doctrine.”
Another common special provision of this type, one less widely available than the Castle Doctrine but available in North Carolina and many other states, grants a legal presumption that the defender possessed a reasonable fear of imminent deadly force harm from an intruder who unlawfully and forcibly enters that property. Such a legal presumption in effect grants the defender almost all of the elements required to justify his use of deadly defensive force (the only remaining element is that of innocence, that the defender was not the aggressor in the fight).
For any of these special provisions, however, the question can arise whether the use-of-force did or did not occur in the context of highly-defensible property. In other words, was the defender “in his castle” at the time he used the defensive force, or was he “outside his castle?”
The answer to that question determines whether the defender can claim the benefit of those special provisions for the use of force in the context of highly-defensible property.
Every state recognizes as “castle” the area within the four walls of your home. For some states that’s the total extent of the “castle.” In Massachusetts, for example, a defender almost entirely within this “castle” but with one foot extending outside his front door is deemed to be outside, not inside, his castle for use-of-force purposes.
Most states, however, do not limit the legal scope of the “castle” so rigidly, and include in the definition of “castle” an area beyond the four walls of the physical structure. The legal term for this is “curtilage,” and it traditionally includes the area immediately around the home that’s part of the normal day-to-day function of the home. To the extent the defender is within his curtilage, his use-of-force is treated much the same as if he were within the four walls of his “castle.”
One caution on “curtilage” as a legal term-of-art: its meaning and scope can be quite different for different legal purposes. In this Post of the Day we’re discussing curtilage in the context of defensive use of force. Most of the case law on curtilage, however, arises in a completely different context: 4th Amendment law, or search & seizure law.
In other words, at what point has the government entered your “castle” in attempting to search or seize your property, because that is the point at which a search warrant is required. Be warned that the scope of curtilage for 4th Amendment purposes can be very different than the scope of curtilage for use of force purposes. So, if you’re reading about curtilage in a 4th Amendment court decision, keep in mind that scope of curtilage may not apply in a use-of-force case.
With that caution in mind, if the definition I’ve offered of curtilage—the area immediately around the home that’s part of the normal day-to-day function of the home—seems very vague, that’s because it is very vague. As a result, it’s very contextual and very subjective, and lacks any rigid legal boundary.
The only absolute boundary on curtilage occurs once the property owner reaches the boundary of where he has the right of exclusion—once a common or public area is reached, that’s definitely no longer curtilage. Other than that, however, curtilage can be pretty gray.
In terms of context, what constitutes curtilage for one defender may not constitute curtilage for another. Imagine, for example, a farmhouse with a detached barn a hundred or so feet from the house. While that property is used as a working farm, such that the owner makes use of the barn as part of the normal day-to-day function of the household, a solid argument could be made that barn constitutes curtilage and is an extension of the farmhouse “castle.”
Imagine that the farm is sold to become a bed & breakfast, however, and the barn is no longer used in any meaningful sense. The property itself is unchanged, but now an argument could be made that the barn no longer qualifies as curtilage, because it is no longer a part of the normal day-to-day function of the household.
Some states do provide some guidance on curtilage, but rarely a hard limit. So a defense of dwelling statute may state explicitly that the definition of “dwelling” includes an attached porch. That’s helpful, but hardly definitive.
What about if the defender steps off the porch onto his front yard. Then walks to the middle of his yard. Then walks to the very limit of his property. At what point has he left his curtilage? The statutory language doesn’t tell us, and the case law varies tremendously based on the particular facts of each case.
Note that these limits of what constitutes the “castle” must also be considered from the perspective of the attacker, because unlawfully and/or forcibly entering the “castle” is a common trigger for many of the special provisions for defense of highly-defensible property.
Must the intruder actually be within the four walls of the “castle” in order to have unlawfully and forcibly entered? Is it enough if he breaches those four walls (e.g., destroys the integrity of a door or window) without physically entering? Is it enough if he’s unlawfully and forcibly entered the curtilage outside the home (e.g., broke a gate to get onto the property) but not actually even touched the home itself?
I often say that the laws governing self-defense are pretty similar across the 50 states. This is largely because they are based on very old law, with many of the underlying legal doctrines being hundreds or even thousands of years old.
Defense of property laws, however, vary enormously across the 50 states. In part this is because of the more difficult balance the government is seeking to achieve between defense of property on the one hand and the life of a purported intruder on the other. At what point is property valued more than life? To what extent is a dwelling, or any highly-defensible property, not merely property but effectively a surrogate for the innocent life sheltering inside that property?
Different states find a different balance to these difficult questions, resulting in lots of rules, exceptions to rules, exceptions to exceptions, complex enough to be difficult to remember under stress even in a single state, but also all varying considerably from state to state.
For this reason it’s always my advice to clients and students to not rely on these special provisions for defense of highly defensible property to justify a use of defensive force, especially deadly defensive force. Rely instead on the much simpler, easier to recall and carry out, defense of persons laws.
Then, if it turns out you find yourself in an even more favorable legal position because you benefit from a special provision for use of force in defense of highly defensible property, great, it’s a bonus. But even if it turns out that you don’t (e.g., it’s determined that you were outside your curtilage), your use of force is still lawful as straight up self-defense.
Attorney Andrew F. Branca
Law of Self Defense LLC
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Disclaimer: The contents of this post are provided for generalized informational purposes only, and do not constitute legal advice. If you are in need of legal advice you must consult competent legal counsel licensed to practice in the relevant jurisdiction.
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