Does Pennsylvania Have “Stand Your Ground” Laws?
There’s no question that Stand Your Ground laws are a divisive topic, particularly due to their role in the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman shooting of 2012. Critics have called them “shoot first” laws, while supporters argue they help keep innocent people out of prison. While Stand Your Ground laws are somewhat controversial, they can be significant to criminal defendants charged with assault or homicide. It’s important for defendants to be aware of the rules and restrictions that apply to Pennsylvania’s Stand Your Ground laws, and how they can potentially impact the outcome of a case.
What is a “Stand Your Ground” Law?
Stand Your Ground laws are relatively recent in the U.S., with Florida passing the first just 10 years ago in 2005. Since then, 23 other states have followed suit — including Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania’s Stand Your Ground provisions can be found in 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §505(b)(2.3), which states the following:
An actor who is not engaged in a criminal activity, who is not in illegal possession of a firearm and who is attacked in any place where the actor would have a duty to retreat under paragraph (2)(ii) has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his ground and use force, including deadly force.
However, in order for the above paragraph to apply, the person (“actor”) must:
- Have had the legal right to be where he or she was at the time. (If the actor was committing burglary, for example, these rights would not apply.)
- Have been operating under the reasonable belief that using force, including deadly force, was “immediately necessary… to protect… against death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping or sexual intercourse by force or threat.” This “immediate necessity” for self-defense means the harm or threatened harm must have been imminent.
It’s important to elaborate on the term “serious bodily injury,” which has a specific legal meaning. As defined by 055 Pa. Code §3490.4, a serious bodily injury is one which either:
- “Creates a substantial risk of death.”
- “Causes serious permanent disfigurement.”
- “[Causes] protracted loss or impairment of the function of a body member or organ.”
Stand Your Ground laws do not cover bodily injury, or injury which causes only “impairment of physical condition or substantial pain.” While each injury must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, a broken finger or minor laceration would likely be considered bodily injury, while something like loss of limb or severing an artery would be considered serious bodily injury.
This distinction can also impact how a defendant is criminally charged. For example, causing bodily injury generally leads to simple assault charges, while causing serious bodily injury can raise the charges to aggravated assault.
In addition to the defendant meeting certain criteria, the attacker, kidnapper, etc. must have either used or been armed with:
- A real gun.
- An imitation gun.
- “Any other weapon readily or apparently capable of lethal use,” such as knives. This firearm (or other weapon) must be visible to the defendant. This particular criteria distinguishes Pennsylvania’s Stand Your Ground laws from Florida’s, which do not carry this prerequisite.
Stand Your Ground Laws and Use of Deadly Force
These laws also carry some restrictions which can be significant for homicide and assault defendants. In accordance with 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §505(2), the use of deadly force is not considered to be legally justifiable unless the person was defending him- or herself “against death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping or sexual intercourse.” Deadly force is also not permissible if the defendant:
- Provoked the other person.
- Knew he or she could retreat “with complete safety.”
However, the defendant is not obliged to retreat from his or her home or workplace, unless the defendant either:
- Provoked the attack or threat.
- Was attacked by a known coworker at his or her workplace.
This concept of having no duty to retreat in one’s own home is known as the “castle doctrine” (sometimes called “defense of habitation law” or “castle law”), an ancient holdover from the Roman Empire.
Exceptions to the duty to retreat, such as those described above, do not apply in cases where the defendant was acting against an on-duty police officer whom the defendant knew (or should have known) to be an officer.
While the root concepts are similar, Stand Your Ground is not synonymous with traditional self-defense. As discussed above, Stand Your Ground arises only under very specific sets of circumstances, whereas self-defense has a much broader application. For example, self-defense can arise even in cases where the attacker did not visibly possess a gun or other dangerous weapon.
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If you or someone you love has been charged with a misdemeanor or felony offense in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, the experienced criminal defense lawyers of Young, Marr & Associates may be able to help. To arrange for a free and completely confidential legal consultation, call our law offices right away at (609) 755-3115 in New Jersey or (215) 701-6519 in Pennsylvania.
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