Its late at night, you are asleep. Suddenly you awake to what sounds to be your front door knob jiggling and turning. You tell yourself its nothing and try to fall back asleep. Then all of a sudden you hear a window break. You run downstairs to find a masked robber with a loaded gun in his hand. A nightmare situation for anyone to be sure, but if you also had a gun, for home defense, would you be able to use force to stop the burglar?
In Massachusetts, like anywhere else, you have the right to defend your own dwelling. This right derives from self-defense and can be used if say you attacked the robber, injuring him and disarming him; or you killed him. The law states that an occupant is relieved from liability for the death or injury to the robber if the occupant acted in the reasonable belief that the person who unlawfully entered the house was about to inflict great bodily injury or death upon the occupant or another person lawfully in the dwelling.
Massachusetts is a little weird when it comes to self-defense. Generally you only have the right to run away before you can use any force. This is known as the duty to retreat. In a nutshell it says that in order before you can use any force, especially deadly, to defend yourself, you must have exhausted every available option to not use force and escape. If you cannot escape, then you can use force to defend yourself. However, it is important to note that you do not have a duty to retreat when someone unlawfully enters your home. So you do not have to run from your own home if you see the burglar has a gun before you can use force to defend your home. (picture taken by the shopping sherpa)
On a final note, the term dwelling is meant to refer to the inside of your home or apartment unit, not the property surrounding it. In other words, you can only use force on the burglar if he is inside your home, not in your driveway.
So to answer my question above, yes I feel that the court would find that you would be justified in using force, even deadly force on the burglar to defend your home. He is clearly an unlawful entrant, he is holding a deadly weapon that he appears to use on you and possibly others in the home, and this weapon can cause great bodily injury or death. Therefore it seems to me that any force you use on the robber would be justified under the defense of defending ones dwelling.
Picture of a house taken by Michael Surtees
The reaction to protect oneself is natural and immediate. And never is this reaction stronger than when you are living in the privacy of your own home. If an intruder entered your home, how would you respond? Will you be responsible for injuring or killing the intruder if you use force? Many people believe that inside your own house you can use whatever means necessary to defend yourself and your home. However, in the eyes of the law, an unfettered attack on a trespasser is not always justified. Certain circumstances are necessary for you to be able to use deadly force and different standards can apply depending on where in your home you are during the altercation.
The first thing to consider when looking at self-defense is reasonableness. The courts in Massachusetts continually use this vague standard and apply it to each set of individual facts. You must have the reasonable belief that you are either about to be attacked (if using non-deadly force) or that you are in immediate danger of serious bodily harm or death (if using deadly force). Normally, you would also have a duty to retreat from the harm if it were possible in the situation. But where the home is concerned, the so called “castle rule” applies and retreat is not necessary if two conditions are satisfied. First, the homeowner must reasonably believe that the intruder is about to cause them or someone else lawfully in the house great bodily injury or death. Second, the homeowner can only use reasonable means to defend himself or anyone living in the house. It should also be noted that to qualify for this “castle rule,” you must be occupying the house, apartment, etc., and the person whom you injure or kill must be unlawfully present in your house.
Courts will also look at the location of the altercation to determine the reasonableness of the self defense action. Though the castle rule applies to areas within the home, the courts have declined to extend the same rights to those who are on outside stairs or open porches. This defense can only be used for attacks occurring inside your home. While you are the “king of the castle” in your own home, these limitations restrict the kind of force that you can use in defending your property. For more information, see MGL c.278 s.8A.