The Castle Doctrine in Washington State

Posted by William Kirk, Partner | Dec 04, 2018 | 0 Comments

One of the most common questions asked by responsible gun owners pertains to the "Castle Doctrine."  Although this sounds really technical, Washington law does not technically have a "Castle Doctrine,"  Instead Washington law talks about the duty to retreat or lack thereof.  In reality, what the law states is that people who are lawfully in a place, have no duty to retreat.  Without a duty to retreat, one might have the right to protect themselves depending on the amount of force they are threatened with.  

The castle doctrine, also known as a castle law or a defense of habitation law, is a legal doctrine that designates a person's abode or any legally occupied place (for example, a vehicle or home) as a place in which that person has protections and immunities permitting them, in certain circumstances, to use force to defense against an intruder, free of legal liability.  This can include deadly force in some circumstances.  The term "Castle Doctrine" is commonly used throughout the United States to describe a “no duty to retreat” from a home, abode or car.  

If a person has a duty to retreat in order to avoid violence, they must do so. But the Castle doctrines negates any duty to retreat when that individual is assaulted in a place where he/she has a right to be, such as within one's own home. Deadly force may be justified and a defense of justifiable homicide applicable, in cases "when the actor reasonably fears, imminent peril of death or serious bodily harm to him or herself or another".  

One reason deadly force is often justified when encountering home invaders, is that it is reasonable to believe that one is in imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death when your home is invaded.  While they may only be there to steal property (which cannot be prevented with deadly force under Washington law) one does not have to wait to see what an intruder's true intentions are before taking defensive action.  

Since Washington courts have consistently held that you are under “no duty to retreat” when in a lawful location the same would apply when you are in your home, car, office, or any other location where you can lawfully remain.  The most common area we see the Castle Doctrine applied is home invasions.  There is no doubt, that you are under no duty to retreat from your home and you may use whatever reasonable force necessary to protect yourself inside your home. 


But the "Castle Doctrine" or a "No Duty to Retreat" is not absolute.  If you were the “first aggressor,” that is you were the one who started the fight, you likely cannot later claim self-defense.  The concept known as the “first aggressor” rule prevents the person who typically started the altercation, and the escalated the altercation, from claiming that he acted in self-defense.  This is not common in the home invasion setting as no matter how much aggression one shows, it will not justify invasion of their home.  

In general, the right of self-defense cannot be successfully invoked by the aggressor or the one who provokes the altercation; unless he, in good-faith first withdraws from combat at time and in manner to let the other person know that he or she is withdrawing or intends to withdraw from further aggressive action.  See State v. Craig, 82 Wn.2d 777 (1973).  If there is credible evidence that the person claiming self-defense made the first move in the altercation by drawing a weapon, evidence supports giving the First Aggressor Instruction.  A victim faced only with words is not entitled to respond with force in self-defense.  See State v. Riley, 137 Wn.2d 904 (1999).

The law surrounding self-defense, duties to retreat and the Castle Doctrine are complicated areas of law. The appllication of the law will depend greatly on very specific facts.  If you have any other questions about the Castle Doctrine or any other right or responsibility as a gun owner, don't hesitate to contact us today.  

About the Author

William Kirk, Partner

Bill Kirk has been named a Super Lawyer by Washington Law and Politics Magazine every year since 2003. He currently serves on the Board of Regents to the National College for DUI Defense and is the President of the Washington Foundation for Criminal Justice. Bill is one of only two attorneys in this state to pass the National College's Board Certification Exam.


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