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Michigan’s Castle Doctrine: What Are The Limits of Using Deadly Self-Defense To Protect Your Home?

by | Mar 26, 2020 | Homicide Offenses |

 

Michigan law enshrines the right to use deadly force in self-defense or defense of others when permitted to do so.  In addition, a person is also presumed to be allowed to use deadly force in self-defense or defense of others when he or she is attacked in their own home under certain situations.   Sometimes called Michigan’s “castle doctrine”, residents in their own home are protected against prosecution for murder or manslaughter if an intruder is killed under the correct circumstances.  All homeowners should be aware when they can exercise this right and should know the boundaries where it will cross over into a crime.

The Michigan Legislature passed the Self-Defense Act (Public Act 309 of 2006) to codify the state’s “stand your ground” deadly force laws into statute.  Effective October 1, 2006, anyone has the right to the following:

  • “An individual who has not or is not engaged in the commission of a crime at the time he or she uses deadly force may use deadly force against another individual anywhere he or she has the legal right to be with no duty to retreat if either of the following applies:”
    • “The individual honestly and reasonably believes that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent the imminent death of or imminent great bodily harm to himself or herself or to another individual.” MCL 780.972(1)(a).
    • “The individual honestly and reasonably believes that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent the imminent sexual assault of himself or herself or of another individual.” MCL 780.972(1)(b).

Furthermore, the “castle doctrine” statute provides that “it is a rebuttable presumption in a civil or criminal case that an individual who uses deadly force or force other than deadly force under… the self-defense act has an honest and reasonable belief that imminent death of, sexual assault of, or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another individual will occur if BOTH of the following apply”:

  • “The individual against whom deadly force or force other than deadly force is used is in the process of breaking and entering a dwelling or business premises or committing home invasion or has broken and entered a dwelling or business premises or committed home invasion and is still present in the dwelling or business premises, or is unlawfully attempting to remove another individual from a dwelling, business premises, or occupied vehicle against his or her will.” MCL 780.951(1)(a).
  • “The individual using deadly force or force other than deadly force honestly and reasonably believes that the individual is engaging in conduct described [above in MCL 780.951(1)(a)].” MCL 780.951(1)(b).

The “Castle Doctrine” is not just limited to the primary residence but also covers a dwelling, business premises or a vehicle:

  • “Dwelling” means a structure or shelter that is used permanently or temporarily as a place of abode, including an appurtenant structure attached to that structure or shelter. MCL 780.951(3)(c).
  • “Business premises” means a building or other structure used for the transaction of business, including an appurtenant structure attached to that building or other structure. MCL 780.951(3)(b).
  • “Vehicle” means a conveyance of any kind, whether or not motorized, that is designed to transport people or property. MCL 780.951(3)(g).

What about the surrounding area of the dwelling, business premises and vehicle?  Under Michigan’s common law, the “castle doctrine” was limited to an inhabited building and its attached appurtenances, meaning it “applies to all areas of a dwelling — be it a room within the building, a basement or attic, or an attached appurtenance such as a garage, porch, or deck — it does not apply to open areas in the curtilage that are not a part of a dwelling.”  Pond v People, 8 Mich 150 (1860).  The Michigan Supreme Court later found that the “castle doctrine” does not extend to the area outside of the dwelling, specifically the open area in the backyard, when they refused to vacate a murder conviction when someone acted in self-defense and killed an assailant in the narrow passageway between his house and garage.  People v Riddle, 467 Mich 116; 649 NW2d 30 (2002).  The Michigan Legislature, unsatisfied with these results, modified the statute to state that, where “the Self-Defense Act does not apply, the common law of this state applies except that the duty to retreat before using deadly force is not required if an individual is in his or her own dwelling or within the curtilage of that dwelling.  MCL 768.21c.

What exactly is “curtilage”?  The U.S. Supreme Court explained that curtilage is “the area to which extends the intimate activity associated with the sanctity of a man’s home and the privacies of life.”  Boyd v United States, 116 U.S. 616, 630 (1886).  There is no hard-and-fast definition of what is in the curtilage for a particular dwelling, but the U.S. Supreme Court articulated a four-factor test in United States v Dunn, 480 U.S. 294; 107 S.Ct. 1134 to determine what is considered “curtilage” at least for Fourth Amendment search and seizure purposes: “the proximity of the area claimed to be curtilage to the home, whether the area is included within an enclosure surrounding the home, the nature of the uses to which the area is put, and the steps taken by the resident to protect the area from observation by people passing by.”  Id at 301.  The Michigan Supreme Court adopted the Dunn four-factor test for resolving curtilage questions.  People v Powell, 474 Mich 928; 706 NW2d 195 (2005).  They have previous defined “curtilage” as a “courtyard, back-side or piece of ground lying near and belonging to a dwelling-house, and as “a space of ground within a common enclosure, belonging to a dwelling house.”  People v Taylor, 2 Mich 250, 251-252 (1851).  Examples of curtilage have include front porches, decks, patios, enclosed yards and walkways that are adjacent and in close proximity to the house.

However, this presumption for use of deadly force in self-defense or defense of others in your dwelling, business premises and vehicle does NOT APPLY if ANY of the following circumstances exist:

  • “The individual against whom deadly force or force other than deadly force is used, including an owner, lessee, or titleholder, has the legal right to be in the dwelling, business premises, or vehicle and there is not an injunction for protection from domestic violence or a written pretrial supervision order, a probation order, or a parole order of no contact against that person.” MCL 780.951(2)(a).
  • “The individual removed or being removed from the dwelling, business premises, or occupied vehicle is a child or grandchild of, or is otherwise in the lawful custody of or under the lawful guardianship of, the individual against whom deadly force or force other than deadly force is used.” MCL 780.951(2)(b).
  • “The individual who uses deadly force or force other than deadly force is engaged in the commission of a crime or is using the dwelling, business premises, or occupied vehicle to further the commission of a crime.” MCL 780.951(2)(c).
  • “The individual against whom deadly force or force other than deadly force is used is a peace officer who has entered or is attempting to enter a dwelling, business premises, or vehicle in the performance of his or her official duties in accordance with applicable law.” MCL 780.951(2)(d).  “Peace officer” means ANY of the following:
    • “A regularly employed member of a law enforcement agency authorized and established pursuant to law, including common law, who is responsible for the prevention and detection of crime and the enforcement of the general criminal laws of this state. Peace officer does not include a person serving solely because he or she occupies any other office or position.” MCL 780.951(3)(f)(i).
    • A regularly employed member of a police force appointed pursuant to law of a federally recognized Michigan Indian tribe that has trust lands within this state. MCL 780.951(3)(f)(ii).
    • “The sergeant at arms or any assistant sergeant at arms of either house of the legislature who is commissioned as a police officer by that respective house of the legislature”. MCL 780.951(3)(f)(iii).
    • “A law enforcement officer of a multicounty metropolitan district.” MCL 780.951(3)(f)(iv).
    • “A county prosecuting attorney’s investigator sworn and fully empowered by the sheriff of that county.” MCL 780.951(3)(f)(v).
    • “Until December 31, 2007, a law enforcement officer of a school district in this state that has a membership of at least 20,000 pupils and that includes in its territory a city with a population of at least 180,000 as of the most recent federal decennial census.” MCL 780.951(3)(f)(vi).
    • “A fire arson investigator from a fire department within a city with a population of not less than 750,000 who is sworn and fully empowered by the city chief of police.” MCL 780.951(3)(f)(vii).
    • “A security employee employed by the state.” MCL 780.951(3)(f)(viii).
    • “A motor carrier officer.” MCL 780.951(3)(f)(ix).
    • “A police officer or public safety officer of a community college, college, or university who is authorized by the governing board of that community college, college, or university to enforce state law and the rules and ordinances of that community college, college, or university.”  MCL 780.951(3)(f)(x).
  • “The individual against whom deadly force or force other than deadly force is used is the spouse or former spouse of the individual using deadly force or force other than deadly force, an individual with whom the individual using deadly force or other than deadly force has or had a dating relationship, an individual with whom the individual using deadly force or other than deadly force has had a child in common, or a resident or former resident of his or her household, and the individual using deadly force or other than deadly force has a prior history of domestic violence as the aggressor.” MCL 780.951(2)(e).

The “castle doctrine” and the law of self-defense in Michigan is complicated. Homeowners can and have been prosecuted for murder against intruders when they did not meet the legal requirements of self-defense as defined by state common law.  Other conditions that are required for justified self-defense are:

  • “NOT ENGAGED IN THE COMMISSION OF A CRIME” – A person cannot claim they are using justified deadly force in self-defense if they are currently engaged in a crime when using it. If an intruder came into the home to stop the homeowner because he was savaging beating another member of the household and the screams can be heard from the street, then the self-defense doctrine will not apply if the homeowner then kills the intruder.
  • “IMMINENT DEATH/GREAT BODILY HARM/SEXUAL ASSAULT” – The “presumption” of an honest and reasonable belief of imminent death, great bodily harm or sexual assault when using deadly force in self-defense is “rebuttable”, meaning that the homeowner is not entitled to that protection if the circumstances clear do not apply. A person cannot use deadly force to protect against what seems like a threat of minor injury.  The trier of fact has to consider all of the circumstances to decide if the defendant was honestly and reasonably afraid of one or more of these, including: “the condition of the people involved, including their relative strength, whether the other person was armed with a dangerous weapon or had some other means of injuring the defendant, the nature of the other person’s attack or threat, [or] whether the defendant knew about any previous violent acts or threats made by the other person.  M Crim JI 7.15(4).
  • “DEADLY FORCE WAS NECESSARY” – The necessity element of self-defense normally requires that the actor try to avoid the use of deadly force if he can safely and reasonably do so, for example by applying nondeadly force… People v Doe, 1 Mich 451, 456-457 (1850).  Just because a person “may” use deadly force doesn’t mean he “should” use deadly force, for a person is only entitled to use as much force as he or she thinks is necessary at the time to protect oneself.  For the trier of fact to decide whether the amount of force used seemed to be necessary, they should “consider whether the defendant knew about any other ways of protecting himself or herself”, but should “also consider how the excitement of the moment affected the choice the defendant made.”  M Crim JI 7.15(5).  Deadly force may not be justified or necessary in situations where it is clear to the homeowner that the intruder is unarmed or is actually trying to flee or escape the house when discovered.  Self-defense will not apply if the police find the intruder with a bullet in his back by the road because he was shot while running away from the homeowner’s gun.

The use of self-defense is a common claim raised against homicide and assaultive charges in Michigan, especially when the harm happened inside of the defendant’s home.  The “castle doctrine” is not absolute and homeowners are often mistaken on how far they can go to protect their property.  If the deadly force used is excessive under the circumstances, the prosecutor will authorize charges for murder or manslaughter.  It is critical to have a skilled criminal defense lawyer in your corner that understands the nuances of self-defense law and the “castle doctrine”, can effectively present evidence to the court, and will aggressively argue to the judge and jury that all actions taken were in justified protection of your home and family.  You get one opportunity to properly defend your case!

If you or a loved one are accused of any crime and need legal representation, then do not hesitate to contact the experienced attorneys at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC for assistance today.

 

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