Can You Shoot an Intruder in Your Home?
Can you shoot an intruder in your home?
You wake up in the middle of the night. Your spouse is asleep. The kids are asleep down the hall. Not sure what woke you up, you get the pistol out of the safe and do a “sweep” of the house.
As you creep into the living room, you see a dark shape near the front door – although it’s dark in the room, you know it’s not one of your family members. As the intruder turns and sees you, you already have the pistol in your hand and begin firing until they fall…
Did you just commit murder? Or are you justified in shooting first and asking questions later when you find an intruder in your home in the middle of the night?
What if the intruder is in your yard but did not enter the house? Can you use deadly force? Does it matter if they were in the act of stealing your lawnmower or breaking into your shed when you saw them? What if they attack you first?
These are important questions because the above scenarios could happen to anyone. You have the right to defend yourself and to defend your family. But, when there is a dead body and a smoking gun, police may look for any excuse to take you to jail…
Can You Shoot an Intruder in Your Home? SC Self-Defense Law
If you shoot an intruder in your home, you should be protected from prosecution under several different theories. That doesn’t mean that police won’t interrogate you, investigate, and make every effort to put you in jail.
When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail…
You could be charged with murder, manslaughter, or another crime. If you are charged with a crime, what defenses are available to you under SC law?
The starting point for understanding the law of self-defense in SC is… the law of self-defense.
Once you present evidence of self-defense, the burden shifts to the prosecution to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that you were not acting in self-defense. To get a jury instruction from the court on the law of self-defense, you need to show that:
- You were not at fault in “bringing on the difficulty” (you can’t pick a fight with someone and then claim self-defense);
- You had a reasonable fear that you were in danger of death or serious bodily injury; and
- There was no other way for you to avoid the danger (before the Stand Your Ground law, there was a duty to retreat if possible).
What if someone came into your home? Did you still have a duty to retreat from your own home?
The Castle Doctrine
Even before the passage of the Stand Your Ground law, there was no duty to retreat in your own home. It is called the “Castle Doctrine” – a person’s home is their castle and you are never required to retreat from your own home to escape an intruder.
You can shoot an intruder in your home and it is self-defense whether they are pointing a gun at you or just standing there, because of the Castle Doctrine.
Under the Castle Doctrine, it is assumed that you have a reasonable fear of bodily injury or death if someone has broken into your home…
Defense of Others
If someone else is being attacked – whether it is a stranger or your family – you have the right to defend them to the same extent that they have a right to defend themselves.
You may want to be cautious before jumping into a fray on a city street, however, unless you are sure you know what is happening. If the person you are defending started the fight, they are not acting in self-defense which means you will not be covered by the doctrine of defense of others.
Can You Shoot an Intruder in Your Home? SC’s Stand Your Ground Law
SC’s Stand Your Ground law essentially codified the Castle Doctrine and expanded it to apply to any place that you have a legal right to be. You no longer have a duty to retreat in SC if you are attacked at home, at your job, in your car, in the restaurant, or walking down the sidewalk.
Before SC’s Stand Your Ground law was passed by the legislature, people had the right to defend themselves. The primary difference is that, before the Stand Your Ground law, there was a duty to retreat if you were anywhere but your own home. Now, there is no duty to retreat and you are entitled to a Stand Your Ground hearing that may stop the prosecution if the court agrees that the statute applies.
SC Code Section 16-11-410 presumes a reasonable fear of death or bodily injury if someone has “unlawfully and forcibly” entered your home:
(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.
The presumption of reasonable fear applies 1) when a person is unlawfully and forcibly entering your home, or 2) when a person is attempting to remove someone from your home – both are situations when you can legally shoot an intruder in your home.
When does the Stand Your Ground law not apply? If the person you shoot is not unlawfully and forcibly entering your home or trying to take someone from your home…
The law contains specific exemptions including:
- If the person has a legal right to be in your home;
- The person that is being “kidnapped” is a child, grandchild, or in the legal custody of the person that you shot;
- If you are engaged in an unlawful activity or using your home for an unlawful activity (if you are a drug dealer and you shoot someone who comes into your home to steal your drugs, the Stand Your Ground law will not apply); or
- If you shoot a law enforcement officer who is following the rules…
Can You Shoot a Police Officer Who Breaks into Your Home?
If you start shooting and then realize that it was the police busting through your door, you’re going to have an uphill battle even if the police were in the wrong. If you survive the encounter, police and prosecutors will probably do everything in their power to bury you, including seeking the death penalty when they can…
That said, SC’s Stand Your Ground law requires a police officer to identify themselves. If you knew – or reasonably could have known – that it was a police officer, you are not protected under the Stand Your Ground Law.
The law also requires that the police officer be acting “in the performance of his official duties.” If a police officer enters your home to serve an arrest warrant or to execute a search warrant, identifies themselves, and you shoot them, you are not protected. On the other hand, if a police officer breaks into your home and they have no legal right to be there, you should be protected under the Stand Your Ground law as if they were an ordinary citizen.
What if the Intruder Has a Restraining Order?
You can shoot an intruder in your home, even if they are a legal resident or attempting to remove their own child from your home, if they are violating an Order of Protection or a restraining order:
(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.
Whether it is an estranged spouse, disgruntled roommate, or even your landlord, if you have an Order of Protection or restraining order against them, you should be protected under SC’s Stand Your Ground law.
Can You Shoot an Intruder in Your Yard?
A man in Dallas, Texas, was charged with murder after shooting an intruder in his backyard who was attempting to break into his storage shed. Why was he charged with murder? Can you shoot an intruder in your yard?
Dallas, Texas Man Charged with Murder After Shooting Intruder in His Yard
The man said that he woke up in the early morning hours after hearing a sound in his yard. He saw a man in his yard trying to break into his storage shed, so he went outside with his pistol and confronted the man.
He said that the intruder walked towards him holding a pickaxe and fired shots at him before the intruder ran away. He went back to bed, but, later in the morning, found the intruder’s dead body lying in a nearby park:
Meyer told the intruder not to come any closer or he would shoot him, the warrant reads. Meyer said the man took a few steps toward him with a pickax in his hand, the warrant says, and that’s when he fired his gun. He said the unidentified man dropped the pickax and ran into the park behind his property. Meyer told police he fired another shot “into the night” in the direction of the park and then went to bed.
As the sun began to rise, Meyer looked outside and saw what he thought was a black bag in the park. According to the warrant, he went to get a closer look and discovered a man lying facedown on the ground.
There are plenty of facts in the article that would make police suspicious. For example:
- He asked his wife to call an attorney before he called 911;
- He reported a “home invasion in progress” although 1) the intruder had most likely been dead for hours and 2) technically, there never was a “home invasion;”
- He “refused to answer the 911 dispatcher’s questions and repeatedly said ‘he was a victim of a crime and that medical assistance was needed;’”
- He picked up the shell casings and threw them away before police arrived; and
- He told police he fired two shots, but neighbors said they heard three.
Without additional information, none of the above is probable cause to charge a person with murder, though.
Should I Call an Attorney Before Talking to the Police?
My first thought is that he should have talked to a criminal defense lawyer before speaking to police. Although the article (and probably the police) treat the fact that he called an attorney as suspicious, he obviously needed to talk to an attorney.
He may have called the wrong attorney, the attorney may not have answered the phone (it was early in the morning), or he may have ignored the attorney’s advice, but he was definitely in a situation where he should have said nothing before getting advice from a competent defense lawyer and retaining that lawyer to speak on his behalf.
Why Should He Have Waited for His Attorney Before Making Statements?
The facts as related in the article support self-defense and the Stand Your Ground law (Texas has a Stand Your Ground law that is similar to SC’s and other states). Unless there is another witness who is contradicting the man’s statements, he:
- Was in his own home;
- Confronted the intruder in a place where he had a lawful right to be (his own backyard); and
- Was attacked by the intruder who was wielding a pickaxe (he had a reasonable fear of death or great bodily injury).
So, why was he charged with murder?
I can think of two possible reasons. First, there are additional facts that are not contained in the media article. There may be more going on than we know about at this point.
Second, and I think more likely, the police did not believe him – they were suspicious because of the delay and the contradictions in the man’s statements to police. Those contradictions aren’t probable cause for a murder charge, though.
If police really want to go after him, they could prove that he lied to the police during his interrogation and then charge him with lying to police. Unless there is some evidence that he was not defending himself on his own property, lying about the details does not = murder.
Citizen’s Arrest – Can I Shoot an Intruder in My Yard?
Can you shoot an intruder in your yard in SC?
In addition to the principles of self-defense, defense of others, and SC’s Stand Your Ground law that I discussed above, let’s take a look at SC’s citizen’s arrest laws.
When You Can Arrest a Person
SC Code Section 17-13-10 says that any person can arrest a felon or thief if 1) they see a felony being committed, 2) they have information that a felony has been committed, or 3) they see a larceny being committed, whether it is a felony or misdemeanor.
That’s at any time, day or night. What if it happens at night?
When You Can Shoot an Intruder in Your Yard (or Home)
In the nighttime, under SC Code Section 17-13-20, you can arrest a person who:
(a) has committed a felony;
(b) has entered a dwelling house without express or implied permission;
(c) has broken or is breaking into an outhouse with a view to plunder;
(d) has in his possession stolen property; or
(e) being under circumstances which raise just suspicion of his design to steal or to commit some felony, flees when he is hailed.
If it happens at night, SC law specifically authorizes you to kill the person if necessary:
A citizen may arrest a person in the nighttime by efficient means as the darkness and the probability of escape render necessary, even if the life of the person should be taken…
This means that, in addition to the protection of SC’s Stand Your Ground laws, you may be protected under SC’s citizen’s arrest laws if you shoot an intruder who is in your yard or in your home during the nighttime.
Consider the Texas man’s case. Under the facts outlined in the article, he should be protected under both self-defense law and the Stand Your Ground law – he was attacked while in a place that he had a legal right to be (his own property).
Even if he lied about being attacked, under SC law he still has the right to arrest the person if:
- The intruder just broke into the shed, or is in the process of breaking into the shed, “with a view to plunder;”
- Has stolen property in his possession (the pickaxe);
- Has just committed a felony (burglary, although the homeowner has no way of knowing what degree of burglary it would be or whether it is a felony); or
- The homeowner reasonably suspects the intruder intends to either steal or commit a felony, and the intruder flees.
Because it happened at nighttime, he was also authorized to shoot the person under SC’s citizen’s arrest laws.
If it looks like the person is going to escape, you can make the arrest by “efficient means as the darkness and the probability of escape render necessary, even if the life of the person should be taken.” Which means, if they are breaking into your shed, about to break into your shed, or run when you confront them, you can shoot an intruder in your yard.
If you do, you can expect police to interrogate you. You can expect them to attempt to get you to make inconsistent statements and to question your neighbors and family. You can expect them to arrest you, charge you with murder, and take you to jail. You should not make any statements until you have retained an attorney to speak on your behalf.
When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. You should assume that every police officer is a hammer and that you look an awful lot like a nail to them…
Criminal Defense Lawyer in Charleston, SC
Any time you fire a gun or use any kind of force to defend yourself or others, you should assume that police are not going to be on your side. “Am I free to go?” and “I am not going to make any statements until I speak to an attorney” are the only statements you should make until you have met with a competent criminal defense lawyer who can speak on your behalf.