Self-defense as a general defense against prosecution varies widely from state to state. And even when states might recognize the same general principles, they still have their own unique code of laws and specific elements necessary to qualify for a self-defense argument.
When researching legal principles like self-defense, you’ll often come across different doctrines, broad theories concerning the ethical issues raised when attempting to define how or when someone ought to be able to defend themselves.
Generally, all states will require an accused to offer proof that someone was using serious and potentially deadly force against them or another, and the force used by the accused was necessary in attempting to stop the assailant. But where, when, why, and how the force should be used is something that is still hotly debated. You’ll notice that the names given to these doctrines and nicknames given to the specific laws reference the ethical issue they’re dealing with. Colorado has a law nicknamed the “Make My Day” law, referencing the famous Clint Eastwood line. Tennessee, for example, has sets of laws that fit in with “Stand Your Ground” and “Castle” doctrines.
Stand Your Ground
“Stand Your Ground” laws are those that affirm that a defendant has no legal “duty to retreat” or responsibility to attempt to leave prior to using necessary force. In areas without “Stand Your Ground” laws, a defendant might have to show they attempted to escape or flee a dangerous situation prior to using force for a valid self-defense argument. For example, if someone was confronted by an armed robber, states without those laws would require a person to show they tried to leave, and that the robber continued after the person forcefully, otherwise that person might also be open to prosecution for the force they used in return. Tennessee’s version of a “Stand Your Ground” law can be found under TCA §39-11-611(b).
The “Castle” doctrine, as it applies in Tennessee, is a bit more complicated as it deals with some legal concepts not widely known. To fully understand Tennessee’s application of the “Castle” doctrine, you need to understand how an “affirmative defense” works. If the state wants to prosecute someone for a crime, the burden is on the state to prove that person committed the crime. Generally, a defendant has no duty or responsibility to bring evidence that they didn’t commit the crime. However, when an accused wants to argue an affirmative defense, like self-defense, the law requires that they bring evidence forward to show they acted under the legal definition of “self-defense.”
One of the elements often required to prove self-defense is proof that the accused had “a reasonable belief of imminent death of serious bodily injury,” see TCA §39-11-611(b)(2). Because this is an affirmative defense, if there were no “Castle” doctrine, an accused would have to bring evidence through their testimony or through other witnesses to show they had such a fear. The “Castle” doctrine, specifically referring to TCA §39-11-611(c), is an attempt to recognize the sanctity of someone’s home, business, domicile, residence, their “castle;” a place that is their own and where they have the right to feel safe against intruders. It specifically says that if there is someone unlawfully within your home, business, vehicle, etc. using force against you, you are presumed to have been in fear for your life and safety, and it shifts the burden back onto the state to prove that you weren’t.
A recent, and fairly high-profile, example of the “Stand Your Ground” and “Castle” doctrines at work is the case of State v. McCollough. Mr. McCollough was arrested on October 9th and charged with aggravated assault under TCA §39-13-102. The complaining victim alleges that after drinking, he had mistakenly entered McCollough’s apartment, before apologizing, turning around, and leaving. He continues that after walking away, McCollough pursued him, met him 30 feet away from the apartment, and punched him in the face, causing him to fall down a flight of stairs.
On October 26th, Mr. McCollough’s attorney, Chloe Akers, filed a motion requesting a preliminary hearing and a memorandum outlining new evidence and the legal precedent structuring their case for a self-defense argument. The memorandum asserts that two witnesses who were not interviewed that night will provide testimony at the preliminary hearing that McCollough’s actions were not only different from what the victim is alleging, but will also fit within the legal definitions of self-defense.
It asserts that the witnesses will testify the victim did enter McCollough’s apartment, but rather than apologizing and leaving immediately as claimed, that he actually stayed in the apartment and then right outside the door after repeated demands from Mr. McCollough to leave. The witnesses will also testify that the force used, McCollough’s punch, was not at the stairwell, but right at the entrance to the apartment, and only after the complainant became aggressive and threatened to come back inside.
The memorandum walks through the relevant law mentioned above, along with other precedent, and evokes both doctrines in its argument. It explains that because the witnesses will testify the incident occurred within the apartment and on the apartment’s curtilage, that the “Castle Doctrine” has already satisfied the element of fearing for one’s safety, and it’s presumed that McCollough felt threatened by the individual who unlawfully entered and remained in his apartment. And while the memorandum does not explicitly cite Tennessee’s “Stand Your Ground” law, the facts also establish that Mr. McCullough had no obligation to retreat back into his apartment after the complainant had made it outside the door, because the complainant remained right outside, within the curtilage of the apartment, threatening to renter.
You can read the filings in full here. Mr. McCollough’s investigation by the University has concluded, and he has been cleared to continue playing this season in light of the filings and the new evidence. The criminal case is still active, and the requested preliminary hearing is currently scheduled for November 10th.