How far can you go to protect yourself?
When can you kill someone legally in Georgia?
The question comes up repeatedly, not just in clear-cut cases such as a resident’s killing an intruder breaking into a home — as happened Sunday in an apartment on Columbus’ Armour Road — but also during murder trials in which defendants claim to have acted in self-defense.
The former scenario rarely raises any threat of prosecution. What some call the “castle doctrine” is ensconced in the law: If someone breaks or is breaking into your home, you can shoot them, legally, as long as you “reasonably” believe such force is required to stop the “unlawful entry into or attack upon a habitation.”
But the law has three stipulations, one of which must fit:
- The intrusion is “violent and tumultuous” and the resident believes its purpose is “assaulting or offering personal violence” to someone inside.
- The intruder is “not a member of the family or household,” meaning you can shoot strangers who break in, but not someone who lives with you and just lost the door key.
- The resident believes the intruder broke in to commit a felony and deadly force is required to stop it.
This “castle doctrine” extends to temporary habitation you may occupy only overnight.
Outside such a dwelling, killing to defend yourself or others gets trickier.
Georgia law says you must “reasonably” believe deadly force is “necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury” to you or someone else, or it’s the only way to stop “a forcible felony.”
“Forcible” is a key word. Lately some armed bystanders have shot at shoplifters fleeing stores. Shoplifting, like other petty theft, is not a “forcible” felony.
Steve Craft, chief assistant public defender for the six-county Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit that includes Muscogee, notes a distinction between simple theft – stealing property when no one’s there to stop you – and robbery, which involves taking property by force or threat from someone’s immediate presence.
Typically violence is justifiable only in stopping or preventing other violence, not property loss.
For example, you are allowed to use force to protect property other than your own, if it belongs to someone in your immediate family or you are lawfully charged to defend it, but again you legally can do that only to “prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”
Said Craft: “I have an absolute right to protect myself. When I start intervening in other situations that really are police matters, I’m on thin ice.”
You should always call the police first, if possible, particularly if another’s property is involved. The apparent burglar you see going through a neighbor’s window may be a guest or relative given permission to enter that way.
Let the police sort that out, Craft said: “You could be stepping into the middle of something that you really don’t know what’s happening, and you would be liable then.”
The self-defense law has exceptions even for when you personally feel threatened. It says you’re not justified in using deadly force if:
- You’re the instigator. You can’t provoke someone to attack you with the intent of using deadly force in response.
- You’re the one committing the felony. If someone’s using force to stop your committing a crime, you legally cannot assault them and claim self-defense.
- You are fighting by mutual agreement. Similar to the first exception, you can’t start a fistfight and then fatally stab your unarmed combatant to stop it, unless you withdraw and your opponent continues to use or threaten to use unlawful force.
The latter circumstance came up last year in a homicide case involving two friends who were in a fistfight when one lost control and repeatedly stabbed the other. The suspect claimed self-defense, but witnesses testified his opponent had stopped fighting and was backing away with his hands up. The defendant was convicted of voluntary manslaughter.
The law also has a section devoted to cases of family violence or other prolonged abuse likely to make you fear for your life.
It says that if prosecuted for murder or manslaughter, your defense may include evidence you were “the victim of acts of family violence or child abuse committed by the deceased,” including expert testimony “regarding the condition of the mind of the defendant at the time of the offense.”
‘Stand your ground’
Another aspect of self-defense is what’s commonly called “stand your ground.” It made the news after George Zimmerman used it in his defense for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin in Florida on Feb. 26, 2012.
In Georgia, the law says that if confronted with circumstances already cited as justifications for using deadly force, you don’t have to run away. If the situation justifies your taking action, you have no duty to retreat. Prosecutors can’t come back at you in court and say you should have just let it go.
Anyone in such circumstances “has the right to stand his or her ground and use force.”
But “stand your ground” means only that you don’t have to retreat. It does not mean you’re justified in pursuing someone who’s no longer a threat. Shoot an aggressor who turns and runs and you’re not on solid legal ground anymore.
Another factor to consider is the weapon you use. Though police in their discretion may choose to overlook it, using a weapon illegally can erase your immunity from prosecution. That could mean you used a gun you didn’t have a permit to carry, or a sawed-off shotgun with a barrel so short it was illegal to own.
Understanding the law is crucial, particularly for gun owners, because having clear justification can be just as important as having any at all.
As some suspects here have learned, painfully, you can be acquitted in court on a self-defense claim, and still lose.
If the justification isn’t so clear that police choose not to arrest you, you can spend weeks, months or years in jail on a murder charge, long enough to lose your job – and your car and your home, once you’ve no income to make payments – and to blow any savings on attorney’s fees.
“It’s very likely you will spend a significant amount of time in jail waiting to go to trial,” Craft said.
And you’re due no recompense if you’ve lost everything but your freedom by the time a jury concludes you’re innocent because you acted in self-defense, Craft said.
“If you’re acquitted in Georgia of a crime, you get nothing,” he said. “When they take you from the courtroom back to the jail, they hand you the bag of property that they took from you when you were booked into the jail and say, ‘There’s the exit.’ And that is it.”