Picture of a house taken by Michael Surtees
The reaction to protect oneself is natural and immediate. And never is this reaction stronger than when you are living in the privacy of your own home. If an intruder entered your home, how would you respond? Will you be responsible for injuring or killing the intruder if you use force? Many people believe that inside your own house you can use whatever means necessary to defend yourself and your home. However, in the eyes of the law, an unfettered attack on a trespasser is not always justified. Certain circumstances are necessary for you to be able to use deadly force and different standards can apply depending on where in your home you are during the altercation.
The first thing to consider when looking at self-defense is reasonableness. The courts in Massachusetts continually use this vague standard and apply it to each set of individual facts. You must have the reasonable belief that you are either about to be attacked (if using non-deadly force) or that you are in immediate danger of serious bodily harm or death (if using deadly force). Normally, you would also have a duty to retreat from the harm if it were possible in the situation. But where the home is concerned, the so called “castle rule” applies and retreat is not necessary if two conditions are satisfied. First, the homeowner must reasonably believe that the intruder is about to cause them or someone else lawfully in the house great bodily injury or death. Second, the homeowner can only use reasonable means to defend himself or anyone living in the house. It should also be noted that to qualify for this “castle rule,” you must be occupying the house, apartment, etc., and the person whom you injure or kill must be unlawfully present in your house.
Courts will also look at the location of the altercation to determine the reasonableness of the self defense action. Though the castle rule applies to areas within the home, the courts have declined to extend the same rights to those who are on outside stairs or open porches. This defense can only be used for attacks occurring inside your home. While you are the “king of the castle” in your own home, these limitations restrict the kind of force that you can use in defending your property. For more information, see MGL c.278 s.8A.