How does Wisconsin’s ‘Castle Doctrine’ work?

MADISON, Wis. — A shooting early Friday morning left a masked intruder dead on Madison’s north side and has raised questions about whether the action by one of the home’s residents to kill the intruder was justified under the state’s castle doctrine.

While it is a decision that will ultimately be made by the Dane County district attorney, Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes indicated at a Friday morning news conference that it might apply to the shooting.

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“It goes back to the idea that your home is literally your castle, that it’s a place where you’re supposed to feel the safest and most protected,” said Madison defense attorney Jessa Nicholson Goetz.

Legally, the castle doctrine describes a self-defense claim that a defendant can use in court to justify violence against an intruder into their home. When that occurs in the person’s home, it is generally an easier case to show they were acting in self-defense.

“When there’s an intruder in your home, it is viewed as you acting defensively, whereas when you have a fight on the street or something like that, they’re going to look at what opportunities everybody had to escape or otherwise leave the situation,” Nicholson Goetz said.

Unlike some states, Wisconsin does not have a “stand your ground” law — meaning that a defendant in Wisconsin has a duty to retreat if the altercation takes place in a neutral location. That duty does not exist when the attacker is in the victim’s home.

It is not a guaranteed defense, however, if the incident takes place outside the home — like in a building lobby — that does not necessarily fall under the doctrine. A victim also cannot invoke castle doctrine against someone who can also claim the place as their home.

“It’s going to depend also on the amount of force that someone used,” Nicholson Goetz said. “If there were three shots to the back of the head for example, even though it occurred in someone’s home, I think any prosecutor would look at that and say, ‘Well, I’m not so sure these are defensive wounds here.'”

To make the claim in a courtroom, a defendant just has to introduce some evidence to support the claim of self-defense, while the prosecutor then must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it does not apply. Nicholson Goetz said it can also be a tool to avoid charges in the first place.

“Every attorney is going to have different advice, but my personal tactic would be if I know my client was acting in self-defense, if I find them to be credible about that, I would rather have them cooperate with police and give a complete statement on the front end before charges are issued,” she said.