On one fateful evening in the year 2012, 17-year-old African American Trayvon Martin was walking back from the townhouse of his father’s fiancee. Little did he know that in just a few moments, he would be part of arguably the most infamous self-defense case in America’s history. It all started when George Zimmerman, a watch captain of his community, called the police and informed them about a suspicious boy wandering around his neighborhood. Moments later, neighbors report hearing gunshots. Trayvon Martin was killed, Zimmerman claimed it was done in self-defense, trial ensued, and all of it ended with Zimmerman’s controversial acquittal.
In one of our articles, we discussed “stand-your-ground” laws and affirmed that while California does not have such a law, Florida does — and people have speculated that this might be the reason why Zimmerman was freed from prosecution. Would the verdict have been different if it happened in California instead? Well, let’s take a look at California’s similar-sounding law which is PC 198.5, otherwise known as “Castle Doctrine”. There are a few main takeaways from this statute:
- It is founded on the principle that “a man’s home is his castle”; thus, he has the right to protect it by all means;
- Residents have no duty to retreat;
- It justifies the use of force — even deadly force — if it is meant to defend yourself from home intruders; and
- The Castle Doctrine rights can only be invoked by the defenders, not the assailant.
Now, when is an act considered “justifiable” under Castle Doctrine? Here are the following conditions under PC 198.5:
- The resident must have reasonably believed that there was imminent peril of death or threat of great bodily injury;
- A person can only invoke his Castle Doctrine rights if the event occurred within his/her residence;
- The intruder attempted to or succeeded in entering your home unlawfully; and
- The intruder is not a member of the family.
In the case of Zimmerman vs. Martin, it happened outside and is thus, not covered by the Castle Doctrine. However, would that mean that Zimmerman would have been convicted guilty of murdering Martin if they were to follow California law? Probably not. There are many self-defense laws in the state’s constitution that can be applied both in and out of the residence. Zimmerman could still legally stay and fight for his life even if his safety could have been achieved by retreating.
For further reference, let us take a look at some scenarios that would invoke the Castle Doctrine:
- A group of robbers has broken down the door of a small family home. The father, already armed with his gun after hearing the noise made by the robbers, secured the safety of his family by gathering them in the bedroom. Stranded, they had no choice but to defend themselves. The father ended up shooting one of the robbers in the chest area, causing the rest to run out of the home. Eventually, the robber died.
- Your abusive ex-boyfriend discovered your current address and decided to pay you an unexpected visit. You ask him to leave, but he refuses. He begins acting erratically and violently, yelling at you and throwing things around. You knew what he was capable of, so before he could do you any harm, you decided to hit him repeatedly with a baseball bat.
- A woman is casually watching from her television when all of a sudden, a stranger bursts into her home. Almost instinctively, she grabs a pistol from a drawer and points it to the man. The stranger does not seem fazed by her firearm and starts walking closer to her. By this point, she fears for her safety and is left with no choice but to fire her gun.
There are many laws and offenses related to California Penal Code PC 198.5, such as:
- California Criminal Jury Instructions (CALCRIM) 505 and 506;
- Grand theft;
- Petty theft;
- Assault; and
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Self-defense cases are always tough to handle. The good news about Castle Doctrine is that the benefit of the doubt is always given to the defender, whereas the burden of proof is with the alleged aggressor. Nevertheless, it is still a wise decision to get a criminal defense lawyer to represent you in court trials and prove to the jury that you were, indeed, acting in self-defense.