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Defensive Force in the Home

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We now have a number of appellate opinions interpreting the defensive force statutes enacted by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2011. In State v. Kuhns, ___ N.C. App. ___ (July 3, 2018), we have our first opinion squarely addressing the provisions of G.S. 14-51.2, which deals with defensive force in a home, workplace, or motor vehicle. This post focuses on the home, where the conflict in Kuhns occurred, but some of the same principles apply to the workplace and motor vehicles.

The Statutory Castle Doctrine in G.S. 14-51.2

Initially, I want to point out that I am intentionally using the phrase defensive force in the home instead of defense of home or defense of habitation. Under the North Carolina common law, a person had the right to use deadly force to prevent an unlawful, forcible entry into the home if the occupant reasonably feared death or great bodily injury or reasonably believed that the intruder intended to commit a felony. Under G.S. 14-51.1, enacted in 1994 and repealed in 2011 (when the new defensive force statutes were passed), a person had the right to use deadly force to prevent or terminate an unlawful, forcible entry into the home in the same circumstances. Under both formulations, a person relying on defense of habitation was claiming that he or she was defending against a wrongful entry.

New G.S. 14-51.2 continues to require an unlawful, forcible entry as a condition of the right to use deadly force. As under repealed G.S. 14-51.1, the entry may be ongoing or may have already occurred. See G.S. 14-51.2(b)(1), (2). But, the new statute does not require that the occupant act for the purpose of preventing or terminating the entry. Rather, the impact of an unlawful, forcible entry is that the occupant is presumed to have feared death or great bodily injury to himself or another person. G.S. 15-51.2(b)(1). It is also presumed that the intruder intended to commit an unlawful act involving force or violence. G.S. 14-51.2(d). Unless the presumptions are rebutted or an exception applies, the occupant is justified in using deadly force and is immune from criminal liability. See G.S. 14-51.3.

Thus, new G.S. 14-51.2 represents a modified castle doctrine. The essence of the statutory defense is not defending the habitation, or castle, from being attacked or stormed. Rather, G.S. 14-51.2 presumes that the occupants have the right to use defensive force, including deadly force, if their castle is attacked or stormed. (The extent to which common law defenses involving defensive force continue to be available remains to be determined. See, e.g., G.S. 14-51.2(g) (stating that statute is not intended to repeal or limit common law defenses).)

The Conflict in Kuhns

In Kuhns, the occupant of the home was Donald Kuhns, the defendant. Sadly, he shot and killed his neighbor and friend, Johnny Dockery, after a series of conflicts with him that night. On the night of the shooting, both had been drinking with other friends in the neighborhood. Dockery and his girlfriend got in an argument, and Kuhns told Dockery to leave her alone. Dockery got angry and said that if he caught anyone with his girlfriend he’d kill them. After Dockery’s girlfriend drove off, Dockery called 911 to report that she was driving while intoxicated.

When a deputy arrived, Dockery was standing in the middle of the road shouting in the direction of Kuhns’ home. Kuhns told the deputy that Dockery needed to leave before something bad happened. The deputy told Dockery to go home and watched him to be sure he complied.

About an hour later, Kuhns called 911 and said that Dockery was standing in Kuhns’ yard threatening his life. When law enforcement officers arrived a second time, Dockery was “yelling pretty loud.” Slip Op. at 3. The officers again instructed Dockery to go home and followed him to make sure he complied.

According to Kuhns’ evidence, Dockery returned about 45 minutes later for the final, fatal confrontation. Kuhns was inside his trailer trying to go to sleep when he heard Dockery yelling, “[C]ome on out here, you son of a bitch, I’m going to kill you.” Slip Op. at 4. Kuhns retrieved his 32-caliber pistol and went outside onto his porch. Dockery was in the yard of Kuhns’ home, beside the porch, “cussing and hollering” at Kuhns. Id. Kuhns told Dockery to go home. When Dockery saw the gun, he said, “[Y]ou’re going to need more than that P shooter, motherf—er, I’ve been shot before.” Id. Dockery was pacing back and forth and then came at Kuhns fast. Kuhns took a step back, fired one shot, and killed Dockery.

At the defendant’s trial on the charge of first-degree murder, the judge instructed the jury on self-defense but refused the defendant’s request for the pattern jury instruction on defense of habitation, N.C.P.I—Crim. 308.80 (Jun. 2012). The judge stated that there was no evidence that Dockery was trying to break in. According to the judge, the defendant’s evidence showed he was attempting to prevent injury to himself, not trying to prevent Dockery from coming into the curtilage or Kuhns’ home. Therefore, the defendant was not entitled to a defense of habitation instruction. The defendant was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and appealed.

The Meaning of Entry and Home

On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial judge erred in failing to give the requested instruction. The State countered that the defendant was not entitled to the instruction because Dockery never came onto the defendant’s porch and never tried to enter his trailer. For two interrelated reasons, the Court of Appeals rejected the State’s argument and reversed the defendant’s conviction.

First, the Court recognized that G.S. 14-51.2 expressly applies when an intruder is in the process of unlawfully and forcibly entering a person’s home or has already unlawfully and forcibly entered. The Court found that Dockery, by repeatedly returning to Kuhns’ property and threatening Kuhns with bodily harm, had unlawfully and forcibly entered his home. Second, the Court recognized that G.S. 14-51.2 expressly applies to the curtilage of the home. See G.S. 14-51.2(a)(1). The statute does not define curtilage, but the term generally means the area immediately surrounding a dwelling. The Court found that Dockery was within the curtilage of Kuhns’ property and therefore within his home.

The Court did not specifically discuss the actions that made Dockery’s entry forcible, but the opinion indicates that the Court was satisfied that this condition was met. It found that despite numerous requests to leave, Dockery continued to return to Kuhns’ property while threatening Kuhns with bodily harm. Slip Op. at 11. The Court also did not distinguish the parts of the property that constituted the curtilage, finding it undisputed that Dockery was within the curtilage of Kuhns’ home. Id. Presumably, both the yard, which Dockery had entered, and the porch, which Dockery was in the process of trying to enter, were within the curtilage.

The Court concluded that the defendant was prejudiced by the trial judge’s failure to give the pattern instruction on defense of habitation. The Court recognized that the instruction, which recites the presumptions discussed above, would have been more favorable to the defendant than an instruction on self-defense alone. Slip Op. at 12.

The specific wording of the pattern jury instruction on defense of habitation was not at issue. At trial the defendant requested the pattern instruction on defense of habitation, and on appeal the State argued that the defendant was not entitled to the instruction. In rejecting the State’s argument that defense of habitation applies only when the defendant is acting to prevent an unlawful, forcible entry, the Court of Appeals noted that the language of the instruction correctly states that an occupant may use deadly force to prevent or terminate entry. The Court did not consider whether it is proper to instruct the jury that the occupant must have acted with this purpose. As discussed at the beginning of this post, the new statute requires that an unlawful, forcible entry be occurring or have occurred; it no longer seems to require that the occupant have acted with the purpose of preventing or terminating the entry.

As you handle these cases, please keep in mind that G.S. 14-51.2 is a complex statute. Kuhns only scratches the surface. While the new statute bears similarities to the common law and earlier statute on defense of habitation, it is not identical and affords occupants of a home, workplace, and motor vehicle different and in a number of respects greater rights.

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