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Texplainer: When Can Texans Use Deadly Force in Self-Defense?

The death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin has put self-defense laws like Florida's into focus. What does Texas law say about using deadly force in self-defense?

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Hey, Texplainer: When can Texans legally use deadly force in self-defense?

As the story of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old who was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch captain in Florida, continues to attract national attention, Florida’s "Stand Your Ground" law and similar laws in states that followed its lead have come under scrutiny.

Stand Your Ground laws allow for the use of deadly force for self-defense in places beyond one’s home, even where retreat may be possible.

One legal term often mentioned in discussions about Florida’s law is the "Castle Doctrine," which says people are allowed to use deadly force without retreating first in their occupied homes, vehicles or workplaces. Texas passed a Castle Doctrine law, removing the duty to retreat in one's home, in 1995.

In 2007, Texas passed a law resembling Florida’s that goes further than the "Castle Doctrine." Like Florida’s, the Texas law removed the duty to retreat for people who are attacked, as long as they have the "right to be present at the location where the force is used." In other words, Texans are allowed to use force in self-defense before retreating as long as they are not intruding on private property.

Under the law, a person's use of deadly force will be presumed reasonable if someone enters, or attempts to enter, that person’s occupied home, vehicle or workplace "unlawfully and with force."

Twenty-three other states have broad self-defense laws like those of Texas and Florida, according to ProPublica.

Before the bill passed in 2007, Texas was among a minority of states with a duty to retreat before using deadly force, said Gerald Reamey, a law professor at St. Mary’s University. The duty to retreat had been in place since the Legislature amended the Texas Penal Code in 1973.

The 2007 bill made the Castle Doctrine redundant because it removed the duty to retreat, not just in one’s home, workplace or car, but anywhere a person has the right to be.

"When you have a duty to retreat," Reamey said, "only then can you have a Castle Doctrine because the Castle Doctrine is an exception to the duty to retreat."

Bottom line: How Texas’ law would apply to the Martin case, had it taken place here, is not clear, because the details of the incident are not settled. Texas’ law would not protect George Zimmerman, the man who shot Martin, if it turns out Zimmerman initiated the conflict. If Martin provoked Zimmerman and Zimmerman believed deadly force was “immediately necessary,” he would have to show in court that he was acting in self-defense and was entitled to a presumption of reasonableness.

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