Use of Deadly Force in Pennsylvania Expanded Beyond the Confines of Your “Castle”
In Pennsylvania, there is a limited right to self-defense when you are attacked. The use of force in self-defense is justifiable when an individual believes it is necessary to protect himself against force from another person. However, in order to be justifiable, the force used in self-defense cannot exceed the force of the attacker. That is, the use of deadly force is not justifiable unless an individual reasonably feels the need to protect him or herself against death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping or rape. In addition, the threat must be imminent. For instance, if someone were to call you and threaten to kill you in five days, self-defense is not a viable defense because the threat is not imminent. Lastly, under current Pennsylvania law, there is a general “duty to retreat.” The exception to this duty is established in the “Castle Doctrine,” the source of recent legislative expansion in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania has historically followed the Castle Doctrine when it comes to the use of deadly force in self-defense. This is a common law doctrine of ancient origins, which declares that your home is your castle and you have a right to defend it. Therefore, under current Pennsylvania law, you are justified in using deadly force without retreating if you are faced with an imminent threat as previously described inside of your home, or “castle.” In all other places a person must retreat if it can be done safely. Under the “duty to retreat,” if an individual knows he can avoid using force by safely retreating or surrendering his possessions to an attacker, he is obligated to do so. However, for Pennsylvania at least, the laws on how you can protect yourself will be changing.
Recently, Governor Tom Corbett signed legislation affording Pennsylvania citizens greater legal protection for the use of deadly force taken in self-defense. Under the expansion, law-abiding citizens will be justified in using force, including deadly force, against an attacker in their home and any place outside of their home where they have a legal right to be. The right to stand your ground that currently exists only within one’s home will be extended beyond the home. For instance, if you are in your car, on your bike, or an invited guest in another’s home, you will no longer be required to retreat first and may use deadly force if faced with an imminent threat to your life. The expansion also protects individuals from civil lawsuits by the attacker or the attacker’s family when force is used. However, the expansion specifically excludes using deadly force against a household member or a police officer and during illegal activity or with an illegally purchased weapon.
The passage of the law is not without controversy. Proponents of the expansion claim that it is necessary to place Pennsylvania citizens on equal footing with the criminals who would attack them, and that the expansion serves as a further deterrent against violent crime. They argue that the measure was merely designed to protect law-abiding citizens, who shouldn’t have to fear the long arm of the law when they find themselves in a situation where they might have to resort to using deadly force. Conversely, opponents argue that not only will the expansion fail to reduce crime, but that it will actually increase gun violence. These opponents assert that the new law will turn the state into a Wild West scenario where people can shoot first and be free from prosecution later.
While the law is signed and settled, the debate continues. Does giving people the right to shoot at someone on the street, if they perceive them to be a threat, make people more secure or less so? Does it curb violent crime, exacerbate it, or have little overall impact?
Pennsylvania is about to find out, through trial and error, as the law goes into effect on August 27. Read about defenses to murder here.