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In an American stand-your-ground state, say a house-cleaner is sent to a house and told to go right in and clean it. But they were given the wrong address by mistake, so they walk into another house; the door happens to be unlocked; they walk right by a No Trespassing sign. The homeowner is in, and shoots that person. Is that legal?

I found one similar case where the homeowner was not put on trial, but I am not asking about that specific case but rather general law. Different states have different laws, so please let us know if any answers are different per-state.

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  • You might want to name a specific state - because the laws differ very vastly.
    – Trish
    Sep 1, 2023 at 7:33
  • I am not familiar with the relevant states and their laws. Could you select one or more states that you are familiar with, please?
    – Joshua Fox
    Sep 1, 2023 at 7:55
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    There are at least two facts missing that makes this impossible to answer: 1) Does the homeowner believe he is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm. 2) Is that belief reasonable. Sep 1, 2023 at 12:10
  • @IKnowNothing No it doesn't. Normal self defense relies on some variant of "reasonable belief of imminent danger of death or great bodily harm." The purpose of castle doctrine laws is to add another (highly state-dependent) situation to allowing the use of force, something along the lines of forcible entry into a residential dwelling.
    – user71659
    Sep 11, 2023 at 18:05

5 Answers 5

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Depends on the specific law you might trigger.

Georgia

Georgia's "Make my Day" law has basically three prongs that allow you to use deadly force to defend your home:

  • It's a dwelling in which you are legally
  • There's illegal entry by an intruder
  • You reasonably believe that an illegal act other than the illegal entry was happening.
  • You reasonably believe that any force by the intruder might happen against you or another inhabitant of the dwelling.

Illegal entry into a home by someone very easily raises the belief of a burglary happening, and if the intruder appears in any way threatening (e.g. not passed out drunk), then even that point can be fulfilled - so the bar is surprisingly low.

Pennsylvania

In contrast, Pennsylvania is a stand your ground state, but has a lot of limiting factors, that boil down to different rules that need to be true to allow deadly force:

  • You are legally in the place...
    • ...and are attacked. see below
  • The assailant uses or displays a possibly lethal weapon
  • You did not provoke the assailant in any way
  • You are not committing a crime, using an illegal firearm, or resisting/hindering Police

As our situation deals with a defense of home, there's a special rule: the attack isn't necessary. It is sufficient, that you (reasonably) believe that there is ill intent towards you or anyone in your home. Still, this is limited differently than Georgia.

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  • Thank you. So the homeowner can do it if they can say that they thought the housecleaner had a certain state of mind. Does the homeowner have burden of proof on that? Because if not, it seems that they can go right ahead and are legally in the clear.
    – Joshua Fox
    Sep 1, 2023 at 13:52
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    That's not what I wrote. Georgia demands, that a reasonable person would have believed that the intruder would have been committing a crime and was a threat, Pennsylvania demands that the home invader was holding an item that might be a weapon and that a reasonable person -(standing in for the homeowner) would believe that the home invader had ill intent. The state of mind of the home invader is nowhere asked, only the homeowner's state of mind is relevant.
    – Trish
    Sep 1, 2023 at 14:25
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    @JoshuaFox Before the trial, the burden on the defendant in a self-defense case is the burden of production, that is they have to have a prima facie case to support a self-defense claim, enough for a reasonable jury to possibly find there is reasonable doubt they did not act in justified self-defense. Once that's established it's then on the prosecutor to disprove beyond a reasonable doubt that they acted in self-defense during the trial. Sep 1, 2023 at 14:52
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    @JoshuaFox: Regardless of burden of proof, the homeowner is not automatically "in the clear" because, even if they did think the housecleaner had ill intent, the prosecution could show that such belief was not reasonable. Sep 1, 2023 at 20:24
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This varies widely by state

Every state will have very specific statutes about this. This is known as castle doctrine self defense, and pre-dates stand-your-ground laws by decades.

Louisiana Revised Statute RS 14:20 defines justifiable homicide, including:

When committed by a person lawfully inside a dwelling, a place of business, or a motor vehicle as defined in R.S. 32:1(40) when the conflict began, against a person who is attempting to make an unlawful entry into the dwelling, place of business, or motor vehicle, or who has made an unlawful entry into the dwelling, place of business, or motor vehicle, and the person committing the homicide reasonably believes that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent the entry or to compel the intruder to leave the dwelling, place of business, or motor vehicle.

This is not a blanket permission to kill anyone inside your home, but will be a high bar to prosecute. You're probably not going to be able to shoot someone passed out on your floor, for example. Your example would likely hinge on whether or not the entry was unlawful. The state of mind of the homeowner is typically part of the defense, and of course the homeowner is the one who gets to testify as to their state of mind.

These laws are very specific by state. Some states do not include these defenses by statute at all. I would estimate that all the "stand-your-ground" states will have some form of castle doctrine legislation.

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  • Don't forget "Make my day" Colorado, which has arguably extremely low standards for when you can kill someone - illegal entry, reasonable belief of a criminal act (e.g. robbery) and reasonable grounds for force by the burglar (e.g. could not see left hand in pocket, where there might be a gun)
    – Trish
    Sep 1, 2023 at 7:33
  • Does the person making an unlawful entry need to know they are doing so? In the OP, the house cleaner has every reason to think he is entering lawfully. Does this mean they ARE entering lawfully?
    – DJohnM
    Sep 1, 2023 at 16:22
  • @DJohnM, that is a separate topic. If I tell you to enter my neighbors house, is that lawful or not for you? I really don't know, and you probably need a real lawyer to work through the intricacies for your particular state according to the statues at play. The way to actually detemine these things is a trial.
    – Tiger Guy
    Sep 1, 2023 at 17:06
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Your question misunderstands the nature of self defense laws in general, with the stand your ground and castle doctrine just being special cases.

In order to claim self defense, you have to assert that you thought there was a danger, and then that assertion is judged as to whether it was “reasonable” or not. This judgement is initially made by the prosecution as professional judgement whether it is true and/or whether they can get a conviction in the face of such an argument. If they don’t believe you or want a trial anyway, then by a jury.

If you watch a 9 month old baby crawl down the sidewalk, and then up into your house through an open door and then take an axe and kill the baby claiming castle doctrine or stand your ground or any other form of self defense, is going to be utterly useless in all 50 states. The prosecution won’t buy it and neither will the jury.

If on the other hand, a 6 foot 8, 300 pound, body building, martial artist, convicted serial killer escapes from prison, and is discovered asleep on the floor of your living room with a gun in one hand and a knife in the other, and you blast him with a shotgun as soon as you identify him, a claim of self defense may be viable depending on your local laws (and the jury)

Having him awake and standing in the center of the room and it’s going to be viable in even more.

Having him awake and advancing on you, even more.

Having him advance on you while saying he’s going to kill you, and it’s probably a slam dunk in every state, with the prosecution not even bothering to put it to the test, even if you tell the cops you are glad he’s dead and he had it coming.

If your hypothetical house cleaner was caught vacuuming the living room floor, keep your mouth shut and hope you have an inventive and convincing attorney, otherwise you’ll probably be convicted of premeditated murder.

I can’t think of a circumstance where it would be reasonable to kill someone while they were doing nothing more than vacuuming the floor without my personal permission.

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One last factor in some states is that when a defendant was in their home when they used deadly force against another person, there is a presumption that their belief that the other person was an imminent deadly force threat. For example, Florida 776.013

(2) A person is presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another when using or threatening to use defensive force that is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm to another if:

(a) The person against whom the defensive force was used or threatened was in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering, or had unlawfully and forcibly entered, a dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle, or if that person had removed or was attempting to remove another against that person’s will from the dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle; and

Normally the defense has to produce at least a little evidence on each legal requirement of self-defense in order to argue self-defense to a jury. This presumption would relieve the defense of having to present evidence that the victim of the force was a deadly force threat if that person was in the process of forcibly entering the defendant's home. The unlocked door in the hypothetical would present a problem to the defense if they were trying to raise this issue though, since it seems like it wouldn't be reasonable for the defendant to think that the person was forcibly entering their house if the door was unlocked. While there is a presumption, it is rebuttable by the prosecution, who would certainly rebut it at trial by bringing up that the door was unlocked any time they could.

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It should be pointed out that the question cites a case which is not an example of "Stand your ground law" but rather "Castle Doctrine" which holds that a person who has a legal right to be on private property has a right to defend themselves with appropriate force, up to and including deadly force. The primary difference between "Castle Doctrine" and "Stand Your Ground" is that "Castle Doctrine" pertains to private property you own or otherwise have a right to be on while the intruder does not. Stand Your Ground is allowing you to use force for self-defense in a public setting if you or another would be a victim of a crime.

Stand your ground law is the overwhelming majority of the Law in the U.S. with it being law in 39 states in the U.S (As well as 2 of the 5 territories). Of the remaining 11 (And D.C. and one Territory), 10 are Duty to Flee but give an exception to this Duty to Flee if one is one's home (and occasionally place of employment or even vehicle). Further, in Wisconsin and D.C., while there is no Duty to Flee, a jury may use the ability of the defendant to flee at the time of incident when considering whether they are using a valid claim of self-defense.

In all States, Castle Doctrine permits self-defense without the duty to retreate.

With that in mind, in the scenario provided, there is a valid claim of self-defense as the homeowner did not invite the maid into his house despite her mistaking address. In fact, there are cases such as this one where two Maryland Police officers were shot by the homeowner while serving a warrant to the wrong address. The Homeowner did surrender after learning it was the cops and because they were not legally allowed to enter his resident, he was not prosecuted for his actions. Both officers did survive the incident. Maryland is one of the 10 "Duty to Flee" states.

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