The law generally allows people to use force against others in situations like self-defense or defense of others. While people traditionally had a duty to try to retreat from a threat to their safety before using force against the aggressor, Pennsylvania has incorporated some of the ideas behind “Stand Your Ground” laws, which do away with the requirement to retreat before using force in certain situations. However, this law can be somewhat confusing to citizens due to certain requirements that need to be met before force is justified. Thus, it is very important to know the law before using force in self-defense because doing so in a manner not covered under the law could result in arrest for a serious crime.
Under what is known as the Castle Doctrine, the law states that under certain conditions a person has no duty to retreat from his home before using deadly force in self-defense. The stand your ground provisions expand this protection to include certain public places in which a person has a right to be, such as in a car or at work. However, force is usually not justified when a person merely receives a threat or has some feeling of danger. Indeed, the statute explains that a person “has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his ground and use force, including deadly force, if . . . [he] believes it is immediately necessary to do so to protect himself against death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping or sexual intercourse by threat or force.” Importantly, the statute also explains that in order for the use of deadly force to be justified in these public places, the aggressor must display a gun or some other weapon readily capable of lethal use.
In other words, you may not have a duty to retreat from a threat to your life before using deadly force in self-defense. However, you must be either in your home or in a public place in which you have the right to be. Also, your use of deadly force must be proportional to the threatened harm (i.e., you can’t use deadly force against someone who slapped you). Further, the threat to your life must be imminent, and the person you use deadly force against must be using or displaying a deadly weapon. You can’t use “stand your ground” against fists. Additionally, if the aggressor flees, you can’t chase him down and use deadly force. Deadly force is also not justified in defense of property, or if you are the instigator of the conflict (or even if you just continued the conflict beyond where you had the opportunity to disengage).
While the stand your ground laws and Castle Doctrine offer legal protection to citizens who wish to defend themselves, they are very confusing and can leave a person liable for a violent crime when they may have thought their use of force was justified. Because these protections are inapplicable in certain situations that may not be obvious or even fair, it is important to actually read the entire law and understand it before placing yourself in a situation where you might need to rely on it.
Here is the text of Pennsylvania’s statute regarding use of force in personal protection. There are also similar provisions dealing with use of force in defense of other people (§ 506), in defense of property (§ 507), and more. You should verify that the statutes you are reading are current in case we are unable to update this blog post in the future. Also, to complicate things even further, the Pennsylvania Courts can interpret and add to or subtract from these provisions at any time without modification to the statutes, so you must be familiar with the holdings of any cases that are decided in addition to knowing the statute.
Do you have any questions about when use of force is justified? Let us know in the comment section below.