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Wyoming Supreme Court Adopts ‘Castle Doctrine’ for Cohabitants

by Dale Chappell

In a case of first impression before the Supreme Court of Wyoming, the Court held that a cohabitant who attacks another cohabitant in their shared home may raise the “castle doctrine” in a self-defense argument, defending her use of force to protect herself from the other cohabitant.

When Misty Widdison was staying with her uncle in 2016, they got into an argument, and Widdison stabbed her uncle in the leg and neck. After a jury trial, she was convicted and sentenced to prison for attempted second-degree murder and aggravated assault. In her appeal to the Wyoming Supreme Court, she argued that the district court improperly refused to instruct the jury about the “castle doctrine” of self-defense in her use of force to defend herself.

The castle doctrine provides that a person may “stand his ground and kill his assailant if he is assaulted, without fault, in his own home.” Drennen v. State, 311 P.3d 116 (Wyo. 2013). Known by various names, the castle doctrine is not new; a majority of the states have such a rule allowing people to “stand their ground” when being attacked in their home.

But whether a person has the right to stand her ground when under attack in her home by a cohabitant of that home was an open question in Wyoming. Canvassing court decisions across the country, the Wyoming Supreme Court noted that courts have held that it would be “illogical” to require a person to “retreat” when she is attacked by a cohabitant, but not by a stranger, in her home. That is, whether a person is entitled to rely upon the castle doctrine should not depend on the identity of the attacker, i.e., cohabitant or intruder. The Court added that extending the castle doctrine to cohabitants would better protect victims of domestic violence.

Thus, the Court announced that the castle doctrine applies to a cohabitant, writing: “a cohabitant does not have a duty to retreat in his own home when, through no fault of his own, he is assailed by another cohabitant.”

In Widdison’s case, the jury never heard whether she had the right to defend herself under the castle doctrine because the district court determined that Widdison did not reside with her uncle, but was merely a visitor.

Widdison testified at trial that she lived on and off with her uncle for five years, used his address on her driver’s license, and took care of his property and horses. The State argued that Widdison was a “trespasser” because her uncle had told her to leave prior to the argument that led to the stabbing.

The Supreme Court ruled that the district court erred in concluding that Widdison did not reside in the home, admonishing “it was not the district court’s job to make the call.” Whether she was a cohabitant was a question of fact that the jury must decide.

Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded the case for retrial consistent with this opinion. If the jury finds that she was a cohabitant, then she is entitled to a jury instruction on the castle doctrine. See: Widdison v. State, 410 P.3d 1205 (Wyo. 2018). 

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