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Monday, October 20, 2014

Stand-Your-Ground, Castle Doctrine, and Domestic Violence

From the ABA Journal, I learned about an interesting self-defense case in South Carolina that is causing some controversy. From the ABA Journal:

Prosecutors in Charleston, South Carolina, contend the state’s stand-your-ground law doesn’t apply to domestic disputes in the home. 
Prosecutors say they will make that argument when they appeal a judge’s finding in an immunity hearing that Whitlee Jones of North Charleston was justified in fatally stabbing her boyfriend, Eric Lee, the Charleston Post and Courier reports. 
. . .
Jones stabbed Lee in November 2012 in an incident that began in an argument over a cellphone. Lee had given Jones the phone, but he wanted it back, the Post and Courier says, citing court documents. Jones says she refused, leading Lee to punch her and, when she got out through the back door, to pull her by the hair down the street. A neighbor called 911 and Jones tried to do so too, but the phone went dead. She gave up the cellphone, ending the initial confrontation, and ran down the street. 
When police arrived, Lee said Jones had smashed his phone and there had been no assault. Jones later returned home to gather her belongings and leave for good. She says Lee became agitated and when she saw a knife, she tucked it into her bra. Jones claims Lee tried to block her as he was leaving, shook her, and was getting ready to hit her when she retrieved the knife and stabbed Lee in the heart. 
Kidd points to the wording of the state’s stand-your-ground law, which creates a presumption that a person has a reasonable fear of death when an intruder is trying to forcefully enter a home, but not when a person against whom deadly force is used has the right to be in the dwelling.
The Charleston Post and Courier has the full story on the case here.

The story has caused quite a bit of backlash, with news outlets and commentators reporting everywhere that this case stands for the proposition that domestic violence victims cannot take advantage of "stand-your-ground" self-defense laws. Examples of these critical stories can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

This criticism (along with the ABA Journal's reporting) is mistaken, however, because it incorrectly claims that this case turns on questions of "stand-your-ground." More importantly, while the prosecution's argument in this case leads to what many may see as an unpleasant result, it is completely in line with the language of South Carolina's self-defense law. And most importantly, while this particular case may seem to have an unfortunate result, the defendant can still raise and successfully argue self-defense, and reading the law more broadly could have extremely negative consequences.


The critical stories that I link to above reflect an unfortunate trend in legal commentary where commentators refer to any broad self-defense law (or any self-defense law they do not like) as a "stand-your-ground" law. The phrase "stand-your-ground law" became a common target for derision after the Trayvon Martin shooting and leading up to the not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman back in 2013 -- even though, as I pointed out then, the case did not really turn on Florida's stand-your-ground law.

In the South Carolina case, the law involved is not stand-your-ground -- rather it is a form of castle doctrine. Stand-your-ground laws concern a defendant's duty to retreat in self-defense situations. These laws state that when people have a reasonable fear that they will be killed that they will undergo grievous bodily harm, these people do not have a duty to retreat before using deadly force in response to this threat.

Here is the full text of the law that is involved in the South Carolina case:

SC Code § 16-11-440 (2012)(A) A person is presumed to have a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily injury to himself or another person when using deadly force that is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily injury to another person if the person:

(1) against whom the deadly force is used is in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering, or has unlawfully and forcibly entered a dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle, or if he removes or is attempting to remove another person against his will from the dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle; and

(2) who uses deadly force knows or has reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry or unlawful and forcible act is occurring or has occurred.

(B) The presumption provided in subsection (A) does not apply if the person:

(1) against whom the deadly force is used has the right to be in or is a lawful resident of the dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle including, but not limited to, an owner, lessee, or titleholder; or

(2) sought to be removed is a child or grandchild, or is otherwise in the lawful custody or under the lawful guardianship, of the person against whom the deadly force is used; or

(3) who uses deadly force is engaged in an unlawful activity or is using the dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle to further an unlawful activity; or

(4) against whom the deadly force is used is a law enforcement officer who enters or attempts to enter a dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle in the performance of his official duties, and he identifies himself in accordance with applicable law or the person using force knows or reasonably should have known that the person entering or attempting to enter is a law enforcement officer.

(C) A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in another place where he has a right to be, including, but not limited to, his place of business, has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force, if he reasonably believes it is necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury to himself or another person or to prevent the commission of a violent crime as defined in Section 16-1-60.

(D) A person who unlawfully and by force enters or attempts to enter a person's dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle is presumed to be doing so with the intent to commit an unlawful act involving force or a violent crime as defined in Section 16-1-60.

(E) A person who by force enters or attempts to enter a dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle in violation of an order of protection, restraining order, or condition of bond is presumed to be doing so with the intent to commit an unlawful act regardless of whether the person is a resident of the dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle including, but not limited to, an owner, lessee, or titleholder.
It is correct that the law does contain some language relating to stand-your-ground in subsection (C). But that is only one portion of the law, and it is not the part of the law that is at issue in the South Carolina case. The subsections that are at issue in the South Carolina case are subsections (A)(1) and (B)(1).

Rather than addressing the duty to retreat, these subsections of the law create a presumption of reasonable fear of imminent death or grievous bodily harm in certain situations. This presumption of fear has nothing to do with a defendant standing his or her ground -- it mainly has to do with presumptions of fear and whether the victim was wrongfully entering a home and whether the victim was a lawful resident of the home.

I could see critics potentially responding that the law itself has taken on the label of a "stand-your-ground" law -- and this may well be the case. But that broad label of the law is misleading, since it overlooks most of the law's provisions. And it is especially misleading to continue using that label when speaking about a case that has nothing to do with stand-your-ground doctrine.

As to the substance of the South Carolina appeal, it appears to me that the prosecutor's argument is correct. The language of the law in subsection (A)(1) does indeed create a presumption of a reasonable fear in situations where somebody has unlawfully entered, or is unlawfully remaining, in a home or dwelling. But subsection (B)(1) clearly states that this presumption does not apply if that person is a lawful resident of the home or dwelling -- which is what appears to have been the case.

While the prosecutor's argument does indeed appear to restrict a domestic violence victim from claiming the law's presumption of a reasonable fear, the argument does so because that is what the language of the law demands.

Of course, this does not mean that domestic violence victims will be unable to argue that they acted in self-defense. A victim of domestic violence can argue that the circumstances involved in his or her particular case gave rise to a reasonable fear of death or bodily harm. Instances of prior domestic violence, current aggression, and blocking escape routes would all be relevant considerations in this inquiry.

Moreover, South Carolina is particularly permissive when it comes to evidence of domestic violence to support a victim's claim of self-defense. Section 17-23-170 of South Carolina's evidence code states: "Evidence that the actor was suffering from the battered spouse syndrome is admissible in a criminal action on the issue of whether the actor lawfully acted in self-defense, defense of another, defense of necessity, or defense of duress." Failure to allow this evidence can result in reversible error, as the Court of Appeals of South Carolina held in State v. Grubbs. This provision of the evidence code will likely apply to many cases of domestic violence, and allow a great deal of evidence that explains why the defendant acted as he or she did and whether he or she had a reasonable apprehension of imminent death or grievous bodily harm.

And what if the critics of this case got what they wished for? What if the castle doctrine's presumption of a reasonable fear were extended to situations where the victim was lawfully present in the dwelling?

That expansive reading of the self-defense law may be good news for Jones. But I fear that it would be much more likely to lead to situations where the person committing domestic violence could get away with murder. Without the law's presumption of reasonable fear, victims of domestic violence, like Jones, can still point to circumstances that would support a finding of self-defense, and they would probably have a strong chance of proving self-defense. But if the law were expanded (in some yet-to-be-determined way) to apply to situations where the victim is lawfully present in the home, it would seem that a person committing domestic violence could successfully argue that he or she was acting in self-defense. The person committing domestic violence can argue for the presumption that he or she had a reasonable fear of death or grievous bodily harm if that person puts forth some story that the victim was trying to enter the dwelling or was not leaving the dwelling when told to do so.

There is no denying that Jones's case involves a tragic set of circumstances. And Jones may well have been acting in self-defense given the circumstances of the case that have been reported. But this does not change the fact that the trial court applied South Carolina's self-defense law in an overly broad manner. And those who call for the defendant's version of the law should probably reconsider whether domestic violence victims would be better off in a world with a broader self-defense law.

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