Castle doctrine is an ancient concept dating back to the days of the Roman Empire.  In castle doctrine, a person’s home is their “castle” – and inhabitants of that castle have a right to use deadly force against anyone who intrudes.  Castle doctrine and Stand Your Ground laws became a subject of media controversy and public outrage after the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012, leading many to wonder if and how Stand Your Ground could be applied in other states. In this article, our Atlantic City criminal defense lawyers explain castle doctrine in New Jersey, and how self-defense under Stand Your Ground laws can impact defendants who are charged with assault, homicide, and other violent crimes.

Self Defense Laws in New Jersey

If you or someone you love was charged with a violent crime involving an element of self-defense, Stand Your Ground laws could play an important role in the outcome of the case.  Under N.J.S.A. § 2C:3-4, which deals with the use of force in self-protection (self-defense), “Use of force justifiable for protection of the person… when the actor [defendant] reasonably believes that such force is immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting himself against the use of unlawful force by such other person on the present occasion.”  In other words, New Jersey’s statutes make allowances for protecting yourself when your safety is being threatened.

However, there are also limitations to this law.  As the statute goes on to add, the use of force is not justifiable in the following scenarios:

  • The defendant cannot use force to resist arrest, even if the arrest is unlawful.  The exception would be if the officer making the arrest uses unlawful force.
    • Be extremely careful when interacting with law enforcement – not only with regard to what you say, but also what you do.  Under N.J.S.A. § 2C:12-1, simple assault is elevated to aggravated assault if committed against a police officer or other member of law enforcement.  Aggravated assault is a felony (called an “indictable crime” in New Jersey).
    • Keep in mind that resisting arrest is also a criminal offense, as provided by N.J.S.A. § 2C:29-2.  This offense can be graded as an indictable crime or a misdemeanor (called a “disorderly persons offense” or DP offense in New Jersey).
  • Generally speaking, the defendant cannot use counter-force against a homeowner who uses force to protect his or her property.  However, there are also some exceptions to this rule, as follows:
    • The defendant is a public officer and is making an arrest.  (This also extends to anyone who helps a public officer makes an arrest.)
    • The defendant was unlawfully forced from their home and is attempting to re-enter.
    • The defendant “reasonably believes that such force is necessary to protect himself against death or serious bodily harm.”  The key word here is reasonably.

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When is Use of Force Considered Reasonable?

While “reasonableness” is somewhat subjective, the statute does provide a five-point guideline, stating that reasonable belief exists when (1) the defendant was at his or her own house, (2) the encounter/intrusion was “sudden and unexpected,” and (3) the defendant had to take immediate action against the intruder/attacker.  However, even this isn’t enough.  In addition, one of the following factors must have also been in place:

  • The defendant “reasonably believed that the intruder would inflict personal injury upon the actor or others in the dwelling.”
  • The defendant “demanded that the intruder disarm, surrender or withdraw, and the intruder refused to do so.”

“Duty to retreat” (on the part of the homeowner) is a key component of castle doctrine.  Some states impose this requirement, while others do not.  In most cases in New Jersey,  the defendant is “not obliged to retreat from his dwelling,” unless he or she was the “initial aggressor,” or person who started the conflict.  You also have a duty to retreat if you know that you can do so with complete safety.  If this is the case, then the use of deadly force is not justifiable.  The statute also provides that “a person employing protective force may estimate the necessity of using force when the force is used, without retreating.”

Finally, it’s important to point out the difference between force and deadly force.  The use of deadly or lethal force is never justifiable, “unless the actor reasonably believes that such force is necessary to protect himself against death or serious bodily harm.”

Contact an Atlantic City Criminal Defense Lawyer Today

New Jersey’s Stand Your Ground laws can be confusing, and it isn’t always immediately clear whether a defendant’s use of force was or wasn’t justifiable.  An experienced attorney will be able to determine which defense strategies would be most effective at challenging the prosecutor’s evidence.

If you’ve been charged with homicide, assault, or weapons crimes in New Jersey, the weapons charges criminal defense attorneys at the Law Offices of John J. Zarych may be able to help.  To set up a free, completely confidential legal consultation, call us today at (609) 616-4956.  Se habla español.