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Automotive Version of 'Castle Doctrine' Leads to New Trial in Manslaughter Case

"For a man's house is his castle, et domus sua cuique est tutissimum refugium [and each man's home is his safest refuge]." Sir Edward Coke, The Institutes of the Laws of England (1628).

"The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the crown. It may be frail - its roof may shake - the wind may blow through it - the storm may enter - the rain may enter - but the King of England cannot enter." William Pitt (1763)

When you take criminal law in law school, you learn about the "castle doctrine," which is named after the centuries-old saying that "a man's home is his castle." The castle doctrine is one of the most badass concepts in criminal law. In short, in many states, if you are in your home and an intruder unlawfully tries to enter to attack you, you can use deadly force to defend yourself while in the sanctity of your "castle."

There are numerous twists and exceptions to the castle rule depending on the state (e.g., in some states the intruder must intend to inflict serious bodily harm while in others it is enough that the intruder intends to commit some felony such as arson or burglary; in other states the occupant of the home must not have provoked the intrusion, etc.). The notion that a person is free to use deadly force to protect themselves while in their home has led some people to nickname it the "Make My Day Law" or, more negatively, the "Shoot The Milkman Law."

On Aug. 30, the Court of Appeals of the State of Mississippi issued a ruling (via the Legal Profession Blog) in which it reversed the 2009 manslaughter conviction of Justin Thomas because the lower court refused to give a requested jury instruction regarding the castle doctrine. Interestingly, Thomas' "castle" in this case was not his home but his car.

According to the facts stated in the court's opinion, a fight broke out in a parking lot after a party, and Thomas shot a gun in the air. This caused the fight to stop, and Thomas immediately ran and got into his car. Several men tried to go after Thomas and tried to open his car doors, but Thomas had locked the doors. Thomas began to reload his gun, and the men ran to the back of the car. When one of the men threw a cell phone at the car in an attempt to break the back window, Thomas rolled down the driver's side window and fired several shots, killing a man. Thomas then drove off.

The relevant Mississippi statute states that:

A person who uses defensive force shall be presumed to have reasonably feared imminent death or great bodily harm, or the commission of a felony upon him or another or upon his dwelling, or against a vehicle which he was occupying ... if the person against whom the defensive force was used, was in the process of unlawfully and forcibly entering, or had unlawfully and forcibly entered, a dwelling, occupied vehicle ... and the person who used defensive force knew or had reason to believe that the forcible entry or unlawful and forcible act was occurring or had occurred. 

The trial court found that Thomas' requested jury instruction based on the statute was not warranted because he retreated to his vehicle after firing a weapon on someone else's property. The appeals court disagreed, however, holding that:

Thomas was in a parking lot where he had a right to be when the incident occurred. A question arises as to whether Thomas could be considered the immediate provoker and aggressor since he fired a gun in the air. However, we find that a fact question is presented for the jury as to whether or not the attack on Thomas once he entered his car started a separate chain of events.

The appeals court therefore reversed the manslaughter conviction, and ordered a new trial based on this automotive version of the castle doctrine.

Posted by Bruce Carton on September 9, 2011 at 01:04 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)


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