Stand your ground laws

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With the George Zimmerman verdict still making headlines, the Idaho Press-Tribune enlisted the aid of David Leroy — former Idaho Attorney General who now practices privately in Boise — to help walk us through Idaho’s own complicated self-defense laws.

And they are complicated. No language in Idaho’s state code clearly includes “stand your ground” or “duty to retreat” doctrines — two concepts common in other states’ self defense laws — although some lines seem to hint at both.

Editor’s note: Nothing here should be construed as legal advice. For more information, consult an attorney.


In broad strokes, Leroy explained, most common law justice systems have similar rules regarding self defense. “Criminal Law,” a legal “hornbook” written by Wayne Lafave and Austin Scott, lays the groundwork:

  • A person who is not the aggressor in an encounter may use reasonable force against an adversary if he or she reasonably believes there’s immediate danger of unlawful bodily harm, and that the use of force is necessary to avoid this danger.
  • Note that forms of the word “reasonable” appear twice in the above sentence. That’s important, Leroy said, and it’s ultimately a jury’s job to decide what it means.

That’s the basic concept in a nutshell, although it’s further refined from there. Deadly force may be considered reasonable against a deadly attack, and non-deadly force may be reasonable against a non-deadly attack, but if deadly force is used against a non-deadly threat, it probably won’t be deemed reasonable.


The controversy arises when we start talking about retreat. Should a potential victim attempt to flee before using force against an aggressor? Not everyone agrees.

  • Proponents of the “Duty to Retreat” doctrine say a potential victim is legally required to retreat before using deadly force, provided he can safely do so.
  • “Stand Your Ground” advocates argue that the victim is not required to retreat before meeting force with force.

It’s agreed, however, that the duty to retreat doesn’t apply in one’s own home or place of business. Those can be defended, Leroy said, according to what’s known as the “castle doctrine.”


Idaho doesn’t have a “stand your ground” law, Leroy explained — someone who uses force when he could have retreated may be subject to criminal prosecution.

But maybe not. The code is full of difficult-to-define words like “sufficient,” “intent,” and “endeavor” — not to mention the previously discussed “reasonable” — all of which might mean different things depending on the facts and evidence of the case. And that’s by design. The whole point, Leroy said, is for the jury to examine the facts and then apply the principles.

Idaho doesn’t have a “duty to retreat” law — Title 18 chapter 40 of the Idaho State Code hints at the concept of retreat, but doesn’t quite seem to require it. If fact, if the aggressor attempts to retreat and the victim pursues and attacks, it’s no longer self-defense — it’s a whole new encounter in which the roles have reversed.

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