When it comes to self-defense, in some states you have a duty to retreat before using force against another person. But in other states, you can “stand your ground,” and use force in defense of yourself or others without retreating. What kind of state is North Carolina?
In 2011, North Carolina amended the definition of self-defense in N.C.G.S. 14-51.3. Under the statute, a person is justified in using force against another when that person reasonably believes that the conduct is necessary to defend themselves or another against imminent use of force. But additionally, a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat in any place he or she has the lawful right to be if either of the following applies:
- He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another.
- To defend one’s home, workplace, or motor vehicle under reasonable fear of imminent death or serious bodily harm pursuant to N.C.G.S. 14-51.2.
According to our Supreme Court, this means “wherever an individual is lawfully located—whether it is his home, motor vehicle, workplace, or any other place where he has the lawful right to be—the individual may stand his ground and defend himself from attack when he reasonably believes such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or another.” State v. Bass, 371 N.C. 535 (2018). A defendant entitled to any self-defense instruction is entitled to a complete self-defense instruction, which includes the relevant stand-your-ground provision. Id. at 542.
Places where someone has “a lawful right to be” are not limited to their own residence, workplace, or vehicle but extend to all public areas and even private businesses. For example, a person at a park or in a parking lot, a person at a restaurant or at a rest stop, and a person in a grocery store or in a hardware store could all stand their ground as they are in a place that they have a lawful right to be. Exceptions would be if someone were trespassing on private property or were banned from certain locations that would normally be considered public by the state. There are other less-defined situations where someone might have problems standing their ground in self-defense. For instance, it is debatable whether a man illegally carrying a firearm in a mall would have a lawful right to be inside the mall. But it is highly unlikely that the same man carrying a small amount of marijuana inside the mall would not have a lawful right to be there and defend himself from deadly harm.
The rest of statute 14-51.3 provides that a person who uses force as permitted is justified in using such force and is immune from civil or criminal liability for the use of such force unless it is against an officer or bail bondsman. While early court decisions left open the potential that such immunity could be resolved pretrial before even appearing in front of a jury, more recent decisions have upheld that charges involving self-defense should go to trial by jury to resolve that issue. State v. Austin, 279 N.C. App. 377 (2021). Since determining whether someone could stand their ground requires a lot of deliberation and determination of the facts at hand, those facts should be reviewed by a jury to determine whether the force that was used was justified.
Remember as well, simply because one can stand one’s ground, it does not mean that someone is automatically justified for doing so. Juries will analyze the fear that the person accused had of death or imminent bodily harm and they will also scrutinize the facts of what was happening at the time to decide whether the force against another was justified. If someone is unarmed, non-aggressive, and does not initiate conflict, the court may still not allow the presentation of a self-defense claim. (which is called a jury instruction) Therefore, standing your ground out of principle alone will not allow a claim of self-defense to win at trial.
Have you or someone you love been charged with a violent crime for standing their ground? If so, call Jetton and Meredith today and allow one of our experienced lawyers to help them navigate this dangerous situation. There is nothing worse than having to admit that you hurt someone else, but we are here to let the courts know that you had lawful reasons for your actions and we will fight for you until we can prove it.