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The Statutory Law of Self-Defense in North Carolina

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Several years ago (some might say that’s an understatement) I wrote The Law of Self-Defense in North Carolina, in which I looked at over 200 years’ worth of North Carolina court opinions on self-defense and related defenses, such as defense of others and defense of habitation. The book’s approach reflected that North Carolina was a common law state when it came to self-defense. The right to act in self-defense depended primarily on the authority of court decisions. The General Assembly’s adoption in 2011 of three defensive force statutes—G.S. 14-51.2, G.S. 14-51.3, and G.S. 14-51.4—changed that. An understanding of the law of self-defense in North Carolina now must begin with the statutory law of self-defense.

I must admit that I did not fully appreciate the significance of the statutes when they first appeared. I saw them as revising, supplementing, and clarifying the common law. Now that we have almost twenty reported appellate decisions that have grappled with the statutes (as well as some unpublished decisions), I can see I had it wrong. The statutes create independent defenses, with their own requirements. The enormous body of common law remains significant, both as a means for interpreting and applying the statutes and as a source of additional rights. It is important to recognize, however, that the statutes do not necessarily align with the common law.

The statutory defenses affect both the right to use defensive force outside the courtroom in the real world and the procedures used in the formal world of the courtroom for judging acts of defensive force. The statutes affect such important procedural issues as whether evidence is relevant and admissible, the circumstances in which the jury should be instructed about defensive force, and the wording of those instructions.

Below are some initial takeaways from the cases, which illustrate the importance of closely examining the statutory provisions in every case involving defensive force. In future posts, I intend to discuss the impact of the statutes on specific rules and procedures.

The statutory defenses. G.S. 14-51.2 creates a statutory right to use defensive force in one’s home, workplace, or motor vehicle under the conditions stated there. There are obvious and subtle differences between the statutory defense and the common law defense of habitation. Among other things, the statute’s protections extend to motor vehicles as well as homes and businesses and include presumptions that insulate a lawful occupant’s use of deadly force against someone who unlawfully and forcibly enters those areas. The cases recognize the statute’s expanded scope. For example, in State v. Kuhns, ___ N.C. App. ___, 817 S.E.2d 828 (2018), the court recognized that the statutory protections apply to the “curtilage” of the home, including in that case the yard around the defendant’s home, and not just the home and structures attached to the home. See also State v. Copley, ___ N.C. App. ___ (May 7, 2019) (directing pattern jury committee to revise pattern instruction to include broader definition of curtilage), temp stay allowed, __ N.C. ___ (May 23, 2019). The statute does not merely enlarge the common law defense of habitation. It creates a separate and different right to use deadly force in one’s home, workplace, or motor vehicle (discussed further in my blog post here).

G.S. 14-51.3 creates a statutory right to use force in defense of one’s self or another person, which differs from the common law on defense of person. Most notably, the statute includes an explicit stand-your-ground provision, stating that a person does not have a duty to retreat “in any place he or she has the lawful right to be” when the person meets the requirements of the statute. G.S. 14-51.3(a). In several cases, the courts have reversed convictions for the failure to instruct the jury about this right. See, e.g., State v. Lee, 370 N.C. 671 (2018); State v. Bass, __ N.C. __, 819 S.E.2d 322 (2018); State v. Irabor, ___ N.C. App. ___, 822 S.E.2d 421 (2018); State v. Ayers, ___ N.C. App. ___, 819 S.E.2d 407 (2018). Other cases working their way through the courts will show the extent to which the defense-of-person statute diverges from the common law in other respects.

G.S. 14-51.4 elaborates on the right to use defensive force in the above two statutes. Thus, a person may not rely on the statutory defenses if he or she was “[w]as attempting to commit, committing, or escaping after the commission of a felony.” G.S. 14-51.4(1). The courts are currently considering the meaning of this provision, which differs from the phrasing of common law aggressor principles. One panel of the Court of Appeals has applied the felony disqualification literally, holding that a defendant who had a previous felony conviction and was unlawfully in possession of a firearm was not entitled to a jury instruction on the statutory right of defense of person. The North Carolina Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case. See State v. Crump, ___ N.C. App. ___, 815 S.E.2d 415 (2018), discretionary review allowed, ___ N.C. ___, 820 S.E.2d 811 (2018). (The Court of Appeals opinion is discussed further in my blog post here.) In a more recent case, another panel of the Court of Appeals didn’t mention the felony disqualification in considering whether the trial judge should have instructed the jury on defensive force. In State v. Coley, ___ N.C. App. ___, 822 S.E.2d 762 (2018), the defendant had a broken leg and was using crutches and a wheelchair. His evidence showed that he had been repeatedly assaulted by the victim and, when the victim reentered the defendant’s home, the defendant managed to climb back into his wheelchair, retrieve a gun, and shoot the victim. The majority found that the trial judge erred in failing to instruct the jury on self-defense and defense of habitation. The dissent would have found no error. Neither the majority nor the dissent addressed whether the felony disqualification applied to the defendant, who had a previous felony conviction and was actually convicted in the case of being a felon in possession of a firearm. The North Carolina Supreme Court has also accepted review of this case.

The common law still matters. Although the statutes establish independent rights to use defensive force, the common law still matters. For one, the statutes restate bedrock common law principles. For example, the defensive force statutes incorporate the concept of “reasonable necessity”—that is, that a person may use defensive force if reasonably necessary to defend against harm (although reasonableness is presumed in the statute on defensive force in the home, workplace, or motor vehicle). Common law decisions involving this central tenet of defensive force therefore remain significant in interpreting and applying the statutory provisions. Among other things, as under the common law, a defendant may offer evidence about why he or she had a reasonable apprehension of harm from the victim, including evidence about prior violence by the victim. See State v. Irabor, ___ N.C. App. ___, 822 S.E.2d 421 (2018) (holding that such evidence supported instruction on statutory self-defense). [The admissibility of evidence about the victim in self-defense cases is discussed further in my blog post here]. The cases rely on other common law principles in addressing the statutory defenses, such as the requirement that the evidence must be considered in the light most favorable to the defendant when determining whether the defendant is entitled to a jury instruction on the defense. Id.; see also State v. Coley, above.

The common law also may be a source of additional rights. The statute on defensive force in the home, workplace, and motor vehicle explicitly states that it does not repeal or limit other common law defenses. The statute on defense of person does not contain such a provision, but it also does not state that it abrogates common law rights. Imperfect self-defense, which reduces murder to voluntary manslaughter, is an example of a common law defense that isn’t mentioned in the statute but probably remains viable. It is difficult to imagine that the General Assembly intended to eliminate that common law doctrine. Cf. State v. Lee, 370 N.C. 671, 678–79 (2018) (Martin, C.J., concurring) (observing that defendant may be entitled to perfect defense of another based on statutory defense of person in situations in which the common law only allows imperfect defense of another).

Going forward. Defensive force cases have always been complicated, perhaps more so than necessary. See Brown v. United States, 256 U.S. 335, 343 (1921) (Holmes, J.) (observing that the law of self-defense has had a “tendency to ossify into specific rules”). They will probably get more complicated in the near future as the courts sort out the meaning and impact of the defensive force statutes. Based on my understanding of the cases so far, the best course is to figure out the statutory rights in each case, use the common law as appropriate in interpreting and applying the statutes, and identify the potential applicability of common law rights in addition to the statutory rights. These principles will determine such critical issues as whether the defendant is entitled to instructions to the jury on defensive force, what instructions should be given, and how the instructions should be worded, which have been central concerns in many of the recent decisions.

2 comments on “The Statutory Law of Self-Defense in North Carolina

  1. Have the courts ruled on whether the statutory felony disqualification law abrogates the common law of self defense for someone in the act of committing a non-aggressor felony? It is my understanding that under the common law a person with a rock of crack cocaine in his or her pocket may lawfully shoot back at the person who is shooting at him, but under the statute the person with the cocaine may not lawfully return fire. What do you think?

  2. […] Issues. In my previous post on self-defense, I wrote about the importance of considering the impact of North Carolina’s […]

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