For centuries, the law has recognized a person’s right to use deadly force to defend against an intruder who unlawfully and forcibly enters a person’s home. This common law principle—known as the castle doctrine—was generally recognized by judges and criminal prosecutors for hundreds of years, and has more recently been included in statutes enacted by many state legislatures. These statutory self-defense protections sometimes extend beyond the victim’s home and apply in other physical locations, such as occupied motor vehicles and places of employment.
For example, in 2005 Florida passed a law that expanded on the castle doctrine and included language stating that if a person is in any location he or she has a right to be—and is not engaged in an unlawful activity—the person has no duty to retreat from an attacker and has the right to stand his or her ground, meeting force with force (including deadly force) if he or she reasonably believes such force is necessary to prevent his or her own death or great bodily injury, or the death or great bodily injury of another—or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony offense. Some states include the threat of certain types of kidnappings (usually by non-family members) and the threat of sexual intercourse compelled by force or threat as justifying deadly force in self-defense.
Today, laws in at least 25 states provide that there is no duty to retreat from an attacker in any place in which the victim is lawfully present. These states include: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia. And at least ten of these states include language that such a victim may “stand his or her ground”—including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina.
Some states distinguish between a victim’s use of deadly force in the victim’s home, vehicle, or place of work—which is presumed to be reasonable to prevent death or serious bodily injury—and the use of deadly force in other locations, where a victim may have a duty to retreat before using deadly force, if the retreat can be made safely.
In addition to these statutes that provide defenses to criminal prosecutions when a victim uses force (including deadly force) in self-defense, some state statutes address the related issue of civil liability in a civil lawsuit that may be filed by a person against whom such force is used. Self-defense laws in at least 23 states provide such civil immunity under certain self-defense circumstances.
But the use of deadly force to protect property has been a contentious legal issue, often balancing the right to protect one's property against the ethical and legal implications of using lethal means. A landmark case in this area is Briney v. Katko, decided by the Iowa Supreme Court in 1971. In this case, the court ruled against a property owner, Edward Briney, who had set a spring gun trap in an abandoned farmhouse to deter burglars. Marvin Katko, who was injured by the trap while trespassing, sued Briney. The court held that it was not reasonable to use deadly force to protect property, especially against an intruder who posed no direct threat to human life.
This case set a significant precedent that most states in the U.S. have followed. The prevailing legal principle is that while property owners have the right to defend their property, the use of deadly force is generally considered unreasonable and excessive if it is solely to protect property. This principle is rooted in the belief that human life holds greater value than material possessions. Consequently, the deployment of lethal booby traps, such as spring guns, is largely illegal across the United States. There are, however, variations in state laws regarding the extent to which one can go in defending their property, particularly in cases of home invasion or burglary. Some states may allow more leeway in the use of force under specific circumstances, such as during a home invasion, but the use of deadly force solely for the protection of property remains largely prohibited.
Overall, the legal consensus in the United States is that while defending one's property is a legitimate concern, it does not justify the use of deadly force, except in situations where there is a concurrent threat to human life. The principle underlying these laws is the preservation of life over property, a value deeply embedded in the legal and ethical standards of the country.
Self-defense and stand your ground laws are generally located in a state’s statutes, and usually in the penal or criminal code.
In Texas, the castle doctrine allows individuals to use deadly force to defend themselves against an intruder in their home, vehicle, or place of employment without the duty to retreat. This principle is codified in the Texas Penal Code, which provides legal justification for using force, including deadly force, in self-defense, defense of others, and defense of property under certain circumstances. Texas law also includes a 'stand your ground' provision, meaning that a person who is legally present at a location and not engaged in criminal activity has no duty to retreat before using force in self-defense. Additionally, Texas law provides civil immunity under certain self-defense situations, which means that individuals who use force in accordance with the law may be protected from civil lawsuits. However, it is important to note that the use of deadly force is not justified if it is solely to protect property, except where there is also a threat to human life. The Texas Penal Code reflects a balance between the right to defend oneself and the value placed on human life over property.