Officials Debated Proposed 'Castle Doctrine'
Sarah Poulton, WKBN-TV 27
August 25, 2010
If someone breaks into your home, your first instinct may be to defend yourself and your property.
If you live in Pennsylvania, your options may be limited. There is currently no law that protects Pennsylvanians from protecting themselves during a home invasion.
Over the weekend, a Mercer County homeowner shot a person believed to be an intruder. Greenville police said the suspect, David Keck, 46, of Greenville, broke into a home at 150 Plum St. just after 4 a.m. Saturday and attacked the two people who lived there.
The homeowner, Charles Heck, shot Keck, who was taken to St. Elizabeth Health Center and was listed in critical condition Monday evening. Keck was charged with two counts of aggravated assault and one count each of burglary and criminal mischief.
While the investigation is ongoing, local representatives say they've been trying to devise a law that would limit the liability of a homeowner in this situation.
Many states have what's known as a "castle doctrine," which allows homeowners to enjoy protection from illegal trespassing and violent attacks while in their home. According to State Rep. Chris Sainato, Pennsylvania does not have a castle doctrine.
Sainato, who represents parts of Lawrence and Beaver counties, and State Rep. Michele Brooks, who represents parts of Crawford, Mercer and Lawrence counties, have co-sponsored a bill that would act as a castle doctrine for Pennsylvania.
According to the State Legislature's website, House Bill 40 was originally introduced in Jan. 2009. After lingering in the judiciary committee for more than a year, it was voted out by a vote of 22-4 on May 25 and was assigned to the appropriations committee.
The bill states that the castle doctrine is a common law doctrine of ancient origins that "declares that a home is a person's castle." Sainato said the bill frees the homeowner of liability and gives the homeowner the right to use self defense.
Brooks said she supports this law because people have the right to stand up for themselves, their family and their property. The bill was designed to send a strong message to criminals that law-abiding citizens will protect themselves.
"If a strong enough message is sent by law abiding citizens that we are going to protect ourselves and our families, maybe crime will decrease because people will realize that they won't get away with it," Brooks said.
Some law enforcement officials are against the passage of the bill because they're afraid it will protect those engaged in illegal activities. Mercer County District Attorney Bob Kochems declined comment on this case because it is still under investigation, but he said this is not something that happens frequently.
Kochems said the bill in House is what's known as a "stand and defend" law, meaning a person could defend their position on the street without retreating. He fears that drug dealers could try to claim territory and thinks the bill is too broad, he said.
"[Pennsylvania] already has an effective castle doctrine," Kochems said. "There's almost no duty to retreat in your home, which is what the castle doctrine is."
When informed of this allegation, Brooks said that this law is for law-abiding citizens. She said that if a person is in the process of breaking the law in some form when an intruder enters the premises, that person is not protected under the castle doctrine.
"It's for law-abiding citizens who are being threatened by someone who is breaking the law," Brooks said. "People should have that protection. A victim should have more rights."
Atty. Matt Mangino, who served as Lawrence County's district attorney from 1998-2002, said while there is no existing castle doctrine in place, there is statutory law in Pennsylvania that says a person can defend himself or herself if that person thinks he or she is in imminent fear of being raped, killed or kidnapped.
Mangino said similar bills have been introduced into the House unsuccessfully. He said he's not familiar with the current bill's language, but has an idea of what the bill would propose.
The current statute gives citizens the ability to defend themselves inside their home, but not in public, even if they're in fear for their lives, he said.
Mangino said the difference between defending yourself in your home and defending yourself outside of your home in Pennsylvania is pretty simple: "Outside your home, if there's a means of retreat, you can do that. In your home you don't have to retreat. If you feel you're about to be raped or killed or kidnapped you can use deadly force to protect yourself."
He added that in terms of protecting yourself inside your home, the only permission that would differ from the current statue is that the homeowner would be allowed to use deadly force.
Mangino said he's been involved in some cases where there was use of force. He said he remembers one case where a man was shot in his home, which was also his place of business. The homeowner returned fire, and shot the invader. Mangino said he did not prosecute the homeowner, but he did prosecute the invader.
Mangino said the castle doctrine will also protect homeowners from civil liability. There have been cases in the past where a homeowner, who has used force against an invader, has had civil suits filed against them.
"If they find that you've complied with the castle doctrine, that this person was in your home and you used whatever force was necessary to stop this person, you're immune from civil liability," Mangino said. "In Pennsylvania that doesn't exist. If someone came into your home, you shoot them, police investigate but did not prosecute you, you can still be responsible civilly."