Wyoming Supreme Court Expands “Castle Doctrine”

(Source: Demeester, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

SNAPSHOT

Wyoming’s castle doctrine protects force used to protect against intruders or would-be intruders near vehicles adapted for overnight accommodation (i.e., sleeping in the vehicle).

Wyoming’s castle doctrine does not require an intruder to attempt to enter a home or habitation.

Wyoming’s castle doctrine may apply to would-be intruders just outside or near homes or habitations.

On December 1, 2022, a closely divided Wyoming Supreme Court issued an opinion that expanded Wyoming’s “castle doctrine,” which allows a person to use force, including deadly force, against intruders or would-be intruders into the person’s home or habitation. That opinion, in Howitt v. State, S-21-0284, 2022 WY 152, made two key changes to Wyoming’s pre-existing laws on its castle doctrine. You can read the full opinion here:

First, the Wyoming Supreme Court expanded the terms “home or habitation” to include, in some cases, vehicles that have been “adapted for overnight accommodation.” Howitt, ¶¶ 32-33. To reach this conclusion, the Court recognized that “habitation” is defined as “‘any structure that has been adapted for overnight accommodation,’ [including but not limited to] tents and campers.” Id., ¶ 32 (quoting Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-2-602(g)(i)). Thus, the Court reasoned, the statutory definition of “habitation” should be construed to apply to the “same general kind or class of those specifically listed.” Id. In other words, vehicles in some cases may have been sufficiently “adapted for overnight accommodation” to count as “habitations” such that a person could rightfully kill another person who tried to “intrude” into the vehicle under Wyoming’s castle doctrine.

This conclusion overruled in some part the Wyoming Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in Knopsler v. State, 2016 WY 1, 366 P.3d 479 (Wyo. 2016), where the Court specifically held that “habitation” did not include vehicles and a vehicle could not be considered “adapted for overnight accommodation” “simply by choosing to sleep in it.” Knopsler, ¶ 23, 366 P.3d at 485.

In Howitt, the defendant had simply parked his vehicle at a campground, placed “several containers of camping gear in and around his vehicle, and . . . set up his campsite so he could sleep in his vehicle by clearing space on the passenger side and folding down the rear seat.” Howitt, ¶ 3. Further, the defendant had been “living out of his vehicle for several days.” Id., ¶ 33.

Second, the Court expanded the castle doctrine’s “intruder requirement” so that a defendant may be permitted to use deadly force against a perceived intruder where the intruder never attempts to enter a home, habitation, or adapted vehicle, but bumps into or knocks on that structure and makes generalized verbal threats. Let’s break this down.

In order for the castle doctrine to apply to immunize a person from prosecution for killing an actual or perceived intruder, one of three conditions must be present. In particular, the intruder must have:

  • been “in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering” the home or habitation of another person
  • already “unlawfully and forcibly entered” the home or habitation of another person
  • attempted to remove another against his will from his home or habitation.

If one of these conditions applies to a would-be or actual intruder, then a person may kill that intruder without risk of prosecution. (For a full discussion of these general rules, see this post).

In Howitt, the Wyoming Supreme Court chronicled four (4) cases from other jurisdictions — one from South Carolina, two from Pennsylvania, and one from North Carolina — to ascertain the limits of the “in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering” intruder condition. Howitt, ¶¶ 35-38. Ultimately, the Court did not announce a clear rule for understanding the meaning or limits of “in the process” intruders. Id., ¶¶ 39-42. Yet, it concluded that whether an intruder was in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering a person’s home, habitation, or adapted vehicle is an appropriate question for a jury to decide even where the only evidence of unlawful entry is physical bumps and knocks on the structure without attempted entry, and generalized threats. See id.

If a person wanted to be sure he or she could claim the castle doctrine as a defense, that person would want to follow the blueprint the Wyoming Supreme Court outlined in Howitt:

  1. Verbally warn others not to enter the home, habitation, or adapted vehicle (“do not come any closer or I will use deadly force”; “do not come any closer, I am armed and will shoot you”; etc.)
  2. Make a record of aggressive behaviors by the intruder, including any verbal threats made by the intruder, instances where the intruder “lunged” at the home, habitation, or adapted vehicle, instances where the intruder simply “approached” the home, habitation, or adapted vehicle, or any instances where the intruder made physical contact with the home, habitation, or adapted vehicle. Best practice would be to video record the behavior, write down dates/times of the instances and a detailed description of the intruder’s appearance, actions, and statements, and preserve these records.

In Howitt, the victim never entered the defendant’s vehicle or attempted to do so. Howitt, ¶ 15. The victim did not touch the door handles or windows. Id. The defendant claimed that the victim had been walking through the campsite drunk and disorderly, making verbal threats that he would “beat the shit out of [defendant].” Id., ¶ 40. The defendant further claimed that the victim bumped into his vehicle, an SUV, once and may have knocked on the windows. Id. The defendant states he verbally warned the victim to “not come any closer.” Id. The opinion does not state whether defendant warned the victim that he was armed and would shoot if the victim’s behaviors continued. See id.

Two justices joined in a dissenting opinion, disagreeing that Wyoming’s castle doctrine could be raised at all in this case. In an opinion written by Justice Kautz and joined by Chief Justice Fox, the dissenters argued that there was no evidence to support defendant’s claim that the victim had been “in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering” the defendant’s vehicle. Howitt, dissenting op., ¶ 49. The dissenters wrote:

Being in the vicinity of the car, knocking on the windows, bumping the car, and engaging in verbal threats all are insufficient to establish the victim was working on or attempting to enter Mr. Howitt’s vehicle. Even if the victim “lunged,” as Mr. Howitt claimed, that act does not constitute entry, or even an attempted entry. Furthermore, when the shooting occurred, the victim was not doing any of those things.

Howitt, ¶ 49

The dissenters also observed that, while Wyoming’s statutory castle doctrine does not allow a person to use deadly force against a trespasser simply found near a home, habitation, or adapted vehicle, the majority opinion now expands that doctrine to immunize deadly force against trespasser just outside or nearby a person’s home or habitation. See Howitt, dissenting op., ¶¶ 53-54.

* * * * * *

In short, the Howitt decision expands the protections of Wyoming’s castle doctrine. Now, the doctrine protects vehicles and allows people to use deadly force much earlier than before. People do not need to wait for a would-be intruder to touch or grab at doors or entryways before using force. A person may be justified in using deadly force simply because a would-be intruder may attempt to enter the person’s home or habitation in the near future.

Fair warning, however: the Howitt decision should not be construed as a license to kill mere trespassers. Any person who would read Howitt or this post that way is asking for serious legal trouble.

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