The Stand Your Ground concept has been in the news a lot over the past few weeks. In the George Zimmerman case, pundits across the country conflated Stand Your Ground with self-defense, the actual basis of Zimmerman’s defense. Here in South Carolina, several recent cases have also tackled the issue of an individual’s ability to use deadly force against another person, raising questions about what exactly South Carolina’s law allows.
In the U.S., criminal law has typically contained a duty to retreat, meaning that a person who is in danger has historically been obligated to retreat before resorting to violent self-defense. Stand Your Ground laws flip this obligation on its head, eliminating the duty to retreat and allowing the use of violent self-defense without first trying to get away. In most states, including South Carolina, Stand Your Ground laws offer immunity from prosecution, meaning that a criminal trial can be avoided entirely if the law is successfully invoked.
Another legal concept, which served as the common law basis for the statutory Stand Your Ground laws, is what’s known as the “castle doctrine.” In South Carolina, this doctrine says that individuals are allowed to use deadly force to defend themselves in places they have dominion over.
Though South Carolina has long recognized a basic common law right to defend your property, the law was greatly expanded in 2006, pushing the boundaries of protection outside the confines of a home. This meant that shopkeepers, motorists and even campers could now use the doctrine as legal support for fending off attackers. The law says that individuals in homes, apartments, condos, mobile homes, hotel rooms, tents, offices and vehicles all can defend themselves with deadly force when confronted by an attacker.
There are limitations to South Carolina’s castle doctrine, including restrictions saying that it cannot be used as a defense when the “outsider” has a legal reason to be on someone’s property, such as another owner or lessee to the dwelling, a police officer investigating a crime or someone trying to remove a child under his or her guardianship.
In a clear illustration of the limits of both the castle doctrine and Stand Your Ground laws, an 82-year-old man from Sumter, S.C., failed in his attempt to justify deadly use of force while protecting his property. The murder case against Alton Shelley will now move forward after police say he shot and killed another man who was attempting to repossess his truck.
Shelley argued the man had no right to enter his property and that he feared for his life, two things which he believed justified his use of deadly force. In this case, the judge was clear that repossession personnel are similar to law enforcement officers in that they have legal rights to enter the property of another person. Given this legal authority and a lack of genuine threat, the judge who heard the case ruled against Shelley, finding that he was not entitled to use deadly force to protect his property.
The value of Stand Your Ground laws is debatable and undoubtedly controversial. Proponents of Stand Your Ground laws understandably argue that they are important tools to protect victims. After all, individuals should not have to worry about the threat of criminal prosecution before defending themselves or others in the face of a life-threatening attack. Opponents of the laws point out that the legislation often enshrines a dangerous “shoot first” mentality, something that can precipitate more violence and has resulted in instances of mistaken deaths and injuries.
Individuals in South Carolina should understand that if you employ deadly force to defend yourself or your property, even if you believe you are justified in doing so, you will still likely be arrested. The Stand Your Ground law is complicated and does not function as a “Get Out of Jail Free” card; as a former criminal prosecutor, I would carefully examine each and every case looking for a reason to file criminal charges. Though your actions may fall within the provisions of South Carolina’s Stand Your Ground law, more than likely you’ll be arrested and then would have to retain a criminal attorney to help determine if your actions fall within South Carolina’s Stand Your Ground law.
David Aylor is a defense attorney and city prosecutor for Hanahan and formerly an assistant solicitor for the Ninth Judicial Circuit Solicitor’s Office.