PA Superior Court Rejects Castle Doctrine Defense Where Victim Did Nothing More Than Bang on Defendant’s Front Door

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Cannavo, holding that a defendant is not entitled to raise the Castle Doctrine defense solely because he subjectively believed that the victim was trying to enter his house. Instead, prior to instructing a jury on Pennsylvania’s castle doctrine defense, the court must find that there is evidence of record from which the defendant could have objectively, reasonably believed that someone was trying to enter his or her house without permission.      

The Facts of Commonwealth v. Cannavo

In Cannavo, the defendant was staying at a carriage house near West Chester University on Halloween in 2015. That night, the victim and his friends went out into West Chester wearing Halloween costumes. The victim and his friends were intoxicated. At 1:17 a.m., the victim and his friends attempted to enter a party around the carriage house, but were denied entry. After being denied entry to the party, the victim proceeded to bang on the defendant’s door. The defendant had a closed-circuit television system that permitted him to see the area outside his door. It is unclear how many times the victim banged on the defendant’s door, but there was no evidence presented at trial that the victim actually attempted to enter the defendant’s house beyond knocking on the door. The defendant, however, testified that he believed that the victim was attempting to break into his house, but there was nothing to support the defendant’s belief beyond the victim’s knocking on the door.

After the victim knocked on the door, the defendant fired a .40 caliber semiautomatic pistol through the door without opening it. The bullet went through the door and struck the victim in his small intestine and colon. The police later discovered that, because of the defendant’s prior criminal record, he was not allowed to possess the gun. Fortuntaely, the victim survived. The defendant was subsequently arrested and charged with attempted murder, aggravated assault, recklessly endangering another person, simple assault, and persons not to possess a firearm.

At trial, the defendant raised a claim of self-defense. Prior to the court’s instructions to the jury, the defendant requested a charge directing the jury to consider the castle doctrine, which would inform the jury of a presumption of a reasonable belief that deadly force was necessary for the defendant to defend himself based on the victim’s unauthorized entry into the defendant’s home. The trial court denied his request for this jury instruction. The jury then convicted the defendant of the above crimes, and the trial court subsequently convicted him, following a bench trial, of persons not to possess a firearm in violation of 18 Pa.C.S. Sec. 6105.

The trial court sentenced the defendant to an aggregate term of 25-50 years’ incarceration. The defendant filed post-sentence motions for reconsideration which were denied. He then filed a timely appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. On appeal, the defendant raised two issues on appeal. For purposes of this article, only the issue of whether the trial court erred in denying the defendant’s request to instruct the jury on the castle-doctrine presumption.

What is the Castle Doctrine?

The Castle Doctrine is a basic tenet of American law. The ideological foundation for the castle doctrine is the belief that a person’s home is his castle and that one should not be required to retreat from his sanctum. The doctrine is of ancient origins and even the Bible references it. Ironically, even though this doctrine has existed for thousands of years, it was only codified into Pennsylvania law in 2011.

The Castle Doctrine defense, when available, is a legal rule that permits a defendant to lawfully use deadly force against another individual. The burden is on the defense to establish the factual support for the Castle Doctrine defense. To assert the Castle Doctrine defense, a defendant must establish that the victim is in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering, or has unlawfully and forcefully entered and is present within a dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle. Further, a defendant must establish that he took his actions because he believed that his actions were necessary to protect against death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping, or rape. However, the unauthorized entry or attempted entry into the residence raises a presumption that the actions were in fact necessary to protect against death or serious bodily injury, thereby making it easier for the defendant to prove that he or she acted in self-defense. It is important to note that just because a defendant raises the Castle Doctrine defense does not mean that they are entitled to an acquittal. Rather, the burden switches to the Commonwealth to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a defendant is not entitled to the Castle Doctrine defense (i.e. the  defendant did not credibly believe that he was in danger of death, serious bodily injury, etc.).   

There are limits to the Castle Doctrine, however. A defendant is not entitled to this defense if: the person against whom the force is used has the right to be in or is a lawful resident of the dwelling, residence, or vehicle, such as an owner or lessee; the person sought to be removed is a child or grandchild or is otherwise in the lawful custody or under the lawful guardianship of the person against whom the protective force is used; the actor is engaged in a criminal activity or is using the dwelling, residence or occupied vehicle to further a criminal activity; or the person against whom the force is used is a peace officer acting in the performance of his official duties and the actor using force knew or reasonably should have known that the person was a peace officer. Taking all of this into consideration, a trial court must decide, based on the facts presented at trial, whether the evidence is sufficient to warrant the Castle Doctrine jury instruction. Whether the jury receives such a instruction is incredibly important because if the jury does not receve the instruction from the court, the jury will not likely find a defendant not guilty due to this defense.

Cannavo Was Not Entitled to the Castle Doctrine Defense

The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s denial to include the Castle Doctrine jury instruction. In Cannavo, the Superior Court ruled that it is not enough for the defendant to subjectively believe that the victim was trying to enter his home. Instead, there must also be factual support for a defendant’s belief that the victim was attempting to enter his or her home.  The Superior Court found that there was simply no evidence that the victim was trying to enter the defendant’s home and that the defendant’s subjective belief was not sufficient to receive the jury instruction. Further, assuming that the victim was actually trying to enter his home, the defendant was not entitled to raise this defense because he illegally possessed a firearm and was not justified in doing so. Accordingly, the trial court properly denied the defense’s motion for the relevant jury instruction. This defendant will not receive a new trial.

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