Russell Hebets Jan. 11, 2011

“A man’s home is his castle.” You’ve probably heard this before. Did you know that it actually refers to a legal doctrine? The so-called “castle doctrine” is an exception to the usual rules regarding violent confrontation between people. In most cases, you have a duty to retreat before using force against an attacker—that is, if you can, you must choose flight before fight. The castle doctrine says that you are not expected to retreat from your own home.

Many states, including Colorado, have enacted castle doctrine legislation. In fact, it was Colorado’s 1985 statute granting criminal and civil immunity to anyone using force—including deadly force—defending their home against an invader that earned the infamous title “the make my day law.” Today that law is still on the books, and there is no indication that it’s going anywhere.

Wait a minute…the State of Colorado has given all of us a license to kill, as long as we do it in the privacy of our own homes?—no. This is everyone’s favorite misunderstanding of the make my day law. If the law worked that way, we’d have a lot more dead mother-in-laws and vacuum cleaner salesmen on our hands. Let’s break it down.

What the law actually says is that any occupant of a dwelling is justified in using any degree of physical force against another if three conditions are met. First, the other person must have made an unlawful entry into the dwelling. Second, the occupant must have reasonable belief that the other person intends to commit a crime beyond the unlawful entry. Third, the occupant must have reasonable belief that the other person may use any degree of physical force against any occupant.

In practice, the make my day law is pretty straight forward. You may kill a home invader. Anyone who is breaking in probably intends to rob the place and would probably be willing to use at least some degree of physical force to accomplish the robbery, so there’s your reasonable belief for the second and third conditions of the statute. The important thing is that the assailant has to be inside the home. Courts have decided that attached garages count, but detached garages do not. Front porches don’t count.

The make my day law protection extends to all people—renters, owners, guests of renters and owners. It further extends to all homes—apartments, houses, condos, etc. It does not cover businesses or cars, yet. What have we learned?—don’t shoot the vacuum cleaner salesman, but don’t hesitate to defend yourself and your family against a real invader.