NMA E-Newsletter #141: A Man’s Car Is His Castle

The typical North American adult spends between 15 and 20 hours a week driving or riding in a car. While that may not qualify the vehicle as being a home away from home, many motorists may feel differently – particularly if their typical commutes include lengthy intervals of stop-and-go traffic.

A recent ruling by the Court of Appeals of the State of Mississippi indicates that another state may join the ranks of those that draw a parallel between a person’s car and his home.

Before summarizing the Mississippi ruling, it is important to have a basic understanding of the “castle doctrine,” a key principle in American criminal law. The doctrine is interpreted and enforced differently in each state, but the basic concept is that if you are in your home – your “castle” per the language of the original English law – and an intruder tries to enter unlawfully to attack you, you may have the option to use deadly force to defend yourself and your family.

There are conditions, of course. In some states, homeowners threatened with bodily harm by such an intruder have a duty to retreat as far as possible (including exiting the home) and then can only consider deadly force after verbally announcing that intention. Idaho, Iowa, Nebraska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington DC generally fall into this category.

At the other end of the spectrum, states that currently extend the definition of “castle” to include the location of wherever the attack occurs, and do not impose a duty to retreat, are Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Washington State.

All other states fall somewhere in between in defining and applying the castle doctrine.

The Mississippi case raises the issue of whether a person’s car should be included in the definition of the castle doctrine. Two years ago, Justin Thomas retreated to his car and locked the doors after a fight broke out in a public parking lot. He had fired a warning shot into the air before seeking shelter in the car.

When several men then surrounded Thomas’ car and tried to break in, he rolled down the car window and again fired his gun, killing a man. Thomas was convicted of manslaughter in a lower court, but the State Court of Appeals reversed that decision because the jury was not given instructions regarding the castle doctrine despite a defense request.

A new trial has been ordered, providing a Mississippi jury with an opportunity to decide whether a man’s car is also his castle.

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