Castle Doctrine and an Unlawful and Forceful Entry

May 20th, 2019

Breaking911 posted this story about a woman, clearly high on one or more drugs, entering a home without permission. Rather than being there to commit a crime, she (kindly, I suppose) washed the homeowner’s dishes, sat on the couch, and petted the family dog. BTW, unless somebody washing your dishes or petting your pooch became crimes that I don’t know about, this is not legally Burglary in PA, but felony Criminal Trespass. Anyway, the article is not entirely clear, but the homeowner appears to have been home at the time. She smartly did not engage with the interloper, but the woman had to be there for some time to get some chores done and relax on the couch. Certainly, long enough that the homeowner could have engaged her.

Those with only a general understanding of Castle Doctrine may believe it applies here. Afterall, this woman entered a home and a “man’s home is his castle,” right? Well, yes, but Pennsylvania’s Castle Doctrine is statutorily defined. While it has fairly strong language protecting the homeowner, it does not provide a blank slate for deadly force within the home.

Pennsylvania’s Castle Doctrine provides a presumption that a homeowner has “a reasonable belief that deadly force is immediately necessary to protect himself against death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping or sexual intercourse compelled by force or threat…” 18 Pa.C.S. § 505(a)(2.1). However, that presumption only holds true if two conditions are met.

First, the individual entering or in the home must have been “unlawfully and forcefully entering, or has unlawfully and forcefully entered and is present within…” the home. Note those two words “unlawfully and forcefully.” Did the woman here unlawfully enter the home? Sure. But did she forcefully enter? Not by the reports. She walked in through the front door.

Second, the actor (i.e., the one using force, so the homeowner) “knows or has reason to believe that the unlawful and forceful entry or act is occurring or has occurred.” Again, it’s pretty clear a homeowner will know who belongs in his or her home. Thus, the unlawful aspect is not difficult to show. But how does the homeowner know the “unlawful” guest sitting on her couch petting her dog “forcefully” entered? She doesn’t, unless maybe she heard the door crash in or the window break. That didn’t happen here.

Now I’m not suggesting that somebody cannot forcefully enter through an unlocked door or window. But I am saying that invoking the Castle Doctrine in Pennsylvania is not a simple manner of somebody enters into your home who doesn’t belong there, so you can use deadly force. The facts and circumstances beyond a person being unlawfully in your home dictate the justified use of deadly force. Evidence that the interloper attempted to forcefully enter or in fact forcefully entered the home is an essential element of successfully invoking the Castle Doctrine.

Our Superior Court recently found that a trial court acted properly in not even giving a Castle Doctrine instruction when the defendant shot through the door at several intoxicated partygoers who attempted to “unlawfully” and “forcefully” enter his residence. See Commonwealth v. Cannavo, 199 A.3d 1232 (Pa. Super 2018). (The concurring opinion, I think, actually has a more sophisticated view of the standard and evidence presented in order to obtain the Castle Doctrine jury instruction.) The Superior Court found that the evidence of the individual who was shot banging on the door demanding entry did not constitute an attempt at forceful entry.

As stated, I don’t think there is any question this woman entered unlawfully. But what facts here indicate that this woman entered forcefully? Not much. And, I’m not simply talking about the fact that she walked through the door because it was unlocked. I think there is an argument that an entry is “forceful” even if the person walks through an unlocked door if the person exhibits behavior that their entry is “forceful” (angry words, threats, aggressive body language, etc.). Or, I think their entry can be “forceful” if it was done surreptitiously or stealthily, which would indicate that they are there to commit some form of a crime. (One of the definitions of a burglary is entering a building with somebody present and committing, attempting or threatening to commit a “bodily injury crime.”)

This lastly gets to the ethical question of Castle Doctrine. While many hold the (mistaken) belief that Castle Doctrine gives you carte blanche to defend yourself in your home, it’s not simply a “shoot first, ask questions later” defense. Do you really want to be responsible for the death of this woman? She’s pretty clearly not a threat during this incident. Maybe she would become a threat, and then that’s a different story. So handling this situation as a homeowner requires careful consideration. I frankly wouldn’t enter the same room as her, but politely and forcefully let her know she needs to leave and not come any further into the home. Because, in the end, she clearly needs help. She’s a drug addict and doesn’t realize what’s going on, what she’s doing, or even where she is. She hardly deserves to die for this transgression, nor do you need it on your conscience.

Back To Blog >>

If you have any questions give us a call at: (717) 683-0090