Why is it so hard for reporters to understand basic legal concepts?
I’ll give the mainstream media this much: It’s absolutely consistent in its inability to understand or explain use-of-force law generally and “Stand-Your-Ground” laws in particular.
The most recent example comes out of Tulsa, Okla., where this past Monday a 23-year-old staying at his father’s home encountered three armed assailants who had forcibly entered by kicking in the back door.
Unfortunately for these home invaders, the 23-year-old possessed a loaded AR-15 rifle, and he knew how to use it. All three suspects ended up dead. A fourth, the getaway driver, would later turn herself into police. The shooter immediately called 911 to report the incident, a call which is remarkable in its own right. (Seriously, go listen to it.)
As seems inevitable in any media coverage of a self-defense shooting, news reports of the incident routinely made reference to “Stand-Your-Ground”:
“The homeowner’s son who shot them has not been arrested while police investigate whether he acted in self-defense under the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law.” — CBS News
“[Assistant District Attorney Jack ] Thorp told reporters that investigators will help his office determine whether Oklahoma’s “Stand Your Ground” law applies in the case of the triple shooting.” — Fox News
“Killing of 3 teens during burglary may test Oklahoma ’stand your ground’ law” — Yahoo News
As also seems inevitable, these references to “Stand Your Ground” laws betrayed a shocking inability to understand what such laws actually mean.
The first thing to know about “Stand Your Ground” is that traditional self-defense law often imposed a legal duty to retreat before using defensive force if a safe avenue of retreat was available. “Stand Your Ground” serves to relieve a defender of that duty to retreat in cases where it would previously have existed — and that is all that “Stand Your Ground” does.
This means, of course, that in circumstances in which no legal duty to retreat exists, “Stand Your Ground” is entirely irrelevant, because no one needs to be relieved of a legal duty he never had in the first place.
If no safe avenue of retreat is available, then there is no legal duty to retreat, even in the absence of a “Stand Your Ground” law. If there exists a safe avenue of retreat for the defender, but that path of retreat is not safe for a person accompanying the defender (e.g. a small child or elderly parent), the defender is not required to leave the other behind, and thus there is no legal duty to retreat, again rendering any “Stand Your Ground” law irrelevant.
And then there is the universal exception to any legal duty to retreat: the so-called Castle Doctrine, which holds that even in cases when one would otherwise have a legal duty to retreat, that legal duty doesn’t apply if they are in their “castle” — meaning their home and sometimes their business or vehicle — and they are facing armed intruders who have forcibly entered. In such a home-invasion, there is no legal duty to retreat, so “Stand Your Ground” laws do not apply.
This last circumstance is precisely what that 23-year-old Oklahoman faced on Monday, and there is no state in the country where he would have had a legal duty to retreat, meaning his actions were not governed by “Stand Your Ground” law. Instead, he found himself in a very straightforward defense of dwelling scenario. Under Oklahoma law, as in many states, a home defender in this situation is also favored by the creation of certain legal presumptions that strengthen the legal defense for their use of force.
The relevant Oklahoma law is easily found in Oklahoma Statute §1289.25, “Physical or Deadly Force Against Intruder,” which creates two legal presumptions in defense of dwelling cases.