Castle Doctrine Immunity: Reasonable Fear v. Attacked

In State v. Scott, the S.C. Court of Appeals affirmed the circuit court’s grant of immunity under S.C. Code Section 16-11-440(C) and drew a distinction between 1) A reasonable belief that a person is being threatened which permits a self-defense argument; and 2) An actual attack, which results in immunity under the statute.

Scott was charged with murder in Columbia, S.C. He was standing in his front yard when a person in an SUV, who had followed his teenage daughter and friends home from a club, opened fire towards his house. He returned fire and struck and killed the driver of a second car that was following the SUV. Although there were conflicting accounts, the Court’s decision is necessarily based on the findings of the trial judge who heard the testimony.

Self Defense or Immunity Under the Castle Doctrine?

Section 16-11-440(C) states:

A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in another place where he has a right to be, including, but not limited to, his place of business, has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force, if he reasonably believes it is necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury to himself or another person or to prevent the commission of a violent crime as defined in [s]ection 16-1-60. (emphasis added)

Self-defense is a related but separate issue: “To claim self-defense a defendant must demonstrate he:

  1. Was without fault in bringing on the difficulty;
  2. Actually believed he was in imminent danger of losing his life or sustaining serious bodily injury, or he actually was in such imminent danger; and
  3. Had no other probable means of avoiding the danger of losing his own life or sustaining serious bodily injury than to act as he did in this particular instance.”

The Court makes a distinction between the elements of self-defense and the requirements for immunity under Section 16-11-440(C). Scott was entitled to argue self-defense based on his reasonable fear of the threat from an SUV driving by his home under the circumstances of this case, but that is an argument he would have had to make to a jury. On the other hand, he was entitled to complete immunity from prosecution under Section 16-11-440(C) if he was attacked.

The Court points out that a defendant must establish the elements of self-defense to establish a claim of immunity, but that the clear language of the statute also requires that the defendant was actually attacked. Although there were conflicting accounts from the testimony at the hearing, the circuit court determined that someone in the SUV shot first and that Scott’s conduct in firing back “was in response to an attack, not just the vehicles driving by the home.”

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