When individuals are charged with serious offenses of violence against another, they may want to argue self-defense in showing they were justified in engaging in deadly force. If the accused is found to have acted in self-defense then the accused will be found not guilty of the crime.
Although the United States Constitution requires the government to prove each and every element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt before labeling a person a criminal, the law requires the accused to prove he or she acted in self-defense. Specifically, a defendant arguing self-defense must prove by a preponderance of the evidence (i.e., that is was more likely than not) the following three factors apply:
- The accused was not at fault in creating the situation giving rise to the danger;
- The accused had reasonable grounds to believe and truly believed, even if mistaken, that he or she was in immediate danger of death or serious bodily harm and deadly force was necessary to prevent it; and
- The accused did not violate any duty to escape to avoid the danger.
But the accused does not always have to prove self-defense when raising the argument. When the deadly force is used against a person trespassing in someone’s house or vehicle occupied by the accused, the law will assume the accused acted in self-defense when using deadly force. This rule is known as the Castle Doctrine, which has its origins in English common law dating back to the early 17th century.
The most common factual scenario where the Castle Doctrine applies is during a break-in of someone’s home at night. In these situations, it is the government-not the accused-who has the burden of proof; that is, the government must prove the accused did not act in self-defense to overcome the presumption. To prove the accused did not act in self-defense, the government essentially must show it is more likely than not the accused was at fault in creating the dangerous situation or that deadly force was not reasonably necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm.
It is important to understand the Castle Doctrine does not give the accused a license to kill or an absolute right to use deadly force. The law simply gives the accused the benefit of the doubt of using self-defense because people should feel safest in their homes and have a right to protect themselves and their families. The benefit of the doubt, however, can be taken away by the government when it can prove it is more likely than not the claimed self-defense was not justified.