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California's Stand Your Ground Law

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Feb 16, 2024

Suppose you acted in self-defense against an attacker in California but are now facing possible criminal charges. You may cite California's "Stand Your Ground" law as a viable defense in that case. 

Like many states, California gives people the legal right to defend themselves against imminent threats of harm—in some cases, even with lethal force. However, California's approach to this principle is nuanced, balancing the right to self-defense and preventing unnecessary violence. 

California's Stand Your Ground Law
If acting in self-defense and now facing charges, you might be able to use the "stand your ground" law.

This means that under California self-defense laws, you have the right to stand your ground and defend yourself and others without retreating

The term “self-defense” means you act in lawful self-defense or defense of others if you reasonably believe that you, or someone else, are in imminent danger of being harmed and reasonably believe the immediate use of force is necessary to defend against the danger. You are not allowed to use more force than is reasonably required.

Notably, the reasonable fear of imminent harm must be immediate and present. Further, you can only use an amount of force that a reasonable person would believe is necessary in the same scenario.

To determine whether your fear or belief is reasonable, the totality of circumstances will be closely examined and compared to what a reasonable person in a similar situation with the same knowledge would have believed.

Generally, you can defend yourself or others with proportional force if you reasonably fear imminent bodily harm and use lethal force to protect your home from intruders.

In other words, under limited situations, you can use deadly force or violence, called “justifiable homicide,” to protect yourself or others from harm, which is an affirmative defense to murder, voluntary manslaughter, or other violent crime charges. 

What Does "Stand Your Ground" Mean?

"Stand your ground" is a legal principle that allows a person to use reasonable force, including deadly force, to protect themselves without the duty to retreat when they reasonably believe such force is necessary to prevent imminent death, bodily harm, or a violent crime

What Does "Stand Your Ground" Mean?

The rationale behind this law is the belief that individuals have the right to defend themselves when faced with the immediate danger of being killed or sustaining a great bodily injury. An “imminent danger” is a situation that demands immediate action, such as someone pointing a gun at you. 

You can also use reasonable force to protect your property from imminent harm and use reasonable force to protect the property of a family member or guest.

Reasonable force is the amount of force a reasonable person in the same situation would believe is necessary to make a trespasser leave. If they offer resistance, you can increase the amount of force in proportion to the force used by the trespasser and the threat level they pose to the property.

Unlike some states with explicit Stand Your Ground laws embedded within their statutes, California's legal framework is interpreted through case law and statutory provisions related to self-defense.

What is Stand Your Ground in California?

In California, the principle of standing one's ground is embedded within the state's self-defense laws and interpreted by case law rather than being expressly spelled out. 

The California Jury Instructions (CALJIC No. 5.50) articulate that if a person reasonably believes they are in imminent danger of being killed or suffering great bodily injury, they may act in self-defense without retreating. 

This principle is supported by a body of case law that recognizes the right to stand your ground in any place where the defendant has a right to be.

What Are the Legal Requirements for Self-Defense in California?

For the Stand Your Ground defense to be valid in California, several criteria must be met:

  • Immediate Threat: The threat of harm must be immediate and present. The use of force is only justifiable if the defendant believes that immediate danger of bodily harm or death is imminent.
  • Reasonable Belief: The belief that force is necessary must be reasonable. This means a reasonable person in the same situation would have perceived the threat similarly.
  • Proportionality: The force used in self-defense must be proportional to the threat. For example, deadly force can only be justified if the threat involves a risk of death or serious bodily injury.

How Does Stand Your Ground Differ from the "Castle Doctrine?"

While "Stand Your Ground" is generally defined by California case law, the so-called "Castle Doctrine" is embodied in California's Penal Code 198.5 PC, which says, "Any person using force intended or likely to cause death or great bodily injury within his or her residence shall be presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily injury to self, family, or a member of the household when that force is used against another person, not a member of the family or household, who unlawfully and forcibly enters or has unlawfully and forcibly entered the residence and the person using the force knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry occurred. This section states that great bodily injury means a significant or substantial physical injury."

California's Castle Doctrine applies explicitly to one's home, allowing individuals the legal right to use force, even deadly force, against an intruder without the obligation to retreat. This principle is a fortified version of Stand Your Ground centered on the sanctity of one's domicile. 

In contrast, "Stand Your Ground" principles are applicable in any location where an individual legally resides, providing a defense irrespective of the venue, so long as the individual reasonably believes there is an imminent threat of harm. The two main differences between Stand Your Ground and the Castle Doctrine are:

  1. The Castle Doctrine pertains to your rights over your home, while Stand Your Ground applies to wherever you have a legal right to be and
  2. While Stand Your Ground only permits deadly force proportionate to the imminent threat of death, the Castle Doctrine presumes an imminent threat of death/harm and so allows the use of lethal force against an intruder.

What Are the Challenges and Risks?

While California's laws protect those acting in self-defense, there are significant limitations to consider if you plan to use this defense against charges:

  • Stand Your Ground does not apply if you provoked the attack.
  • Stand Your Ground does not apply if you were involved in illegal activity.
  • Stand Your Ground does not apply if you had no legal right to be in the place where you were attacked. For example, if you were trespassing on someone's property, you cannot claim Stand Your Ground if the owner confronts you.

Furthermore, the interpretation of what constitutes a "reasonable belief" of imminent danger can be ambiguous—and this is often the point where prosecutors will focus their attention, trying to demonstrate that your belief of imminent danger was not reasonable. 

In short, claiming self-defense under California's Stand Your Ground laws can be complicated, even if you have the legal right to defend yourself. 

If you are facing criminal charges based on an act of self-defense, crafting a defense strategy requires a thorough examination of the facts, the ability to articulate a clear and reasonable perception of the threat and a compelling argument that the use of force was necessary and proportional. 

For these reasons, you should not attempt to claim self-defense without the assistance of an experienced California criminal defense attorney. Contact our law firm for more information. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, CA.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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