Photo by Toby Wong on Unsplash
Ali Kassym, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review
I. The Incident
One night during October 2018, Joseph Matos, a homeless man in New York, was suddenly awoken by two individuals. One of the individuals, a male college student, kicked Matos’s dwelling—a structure formed by multiple cardboard boxes linked together under the awning of a hair salon. Provoked by the action, Matos got out of his shelter and launched at the visitors with a knife, stabbing one of them and slashing the other. Charged with assault, Matos has raised an unorthodox defense—Matos invoked New York’s castle doctrine and claimed that the doctrine justified his actions, as he was protecting his home against intruders. This case raises a number of legal questions, including whether a structure made from cardboard boxes is a home within the meaning of castle doctrine. This article is set to answer this question.
Under the New York Penal Law §35.15, a person may not use deadly physical force unless the person reasonably believes that serious physical harm is imminent. Even then, a person must retreat if the opportunity presents itself. However, a person has no duty to retreat when “he or she is in his or her dwelling and not the initial aggressor.” This exception dates back to the longstanding principle that a person, if assailed at his dwelling, may stand his ground and oppose attackers without fleeing. The right to stand one’s ground is also available to individuals who have a permission to be present in the dwelling: guests, family members, baby-sitters, etc.
One of the key issues stemming from Matos’s defense is whether a construction made from cardboard boxes is a “dwelling” within the meaning of the castle doctrine, thus legally justifying his self-defense. Article 35 of the New York Penal Code, which addresses the castle doctrine, does not provide a definition for the term “dwelling.” However, the term is defined for purposes of burglary and criminal trespass as a “building which is usually occupied by a person lodging there at night.”
New York case precedents do not readily assist in determining whether a shelter made from cardboard boxes constitutes a dwelling. In People v. Aiken, the defendant, when confronted by his apartment neighbor, struck the neighbor with a metal pipe and killed him. The court in Aiken refused to recognize that defendant was entitled to a §35.15 jury instruction because he was in a doorway between his apartment and a hall when he killed the victim. The court described the doorway as a “portal between an interior world and a public one,” thus not covered by the dwelling-defense exception under §35.15. The exclusion of public places from legal definition of the term “dwelling” is also supported in other cases.
Contrary to the decision in Aiken, the court in People v. McCurdy held that a hallway space in an apartment complex was qualified as a dwelling under §35.15. In McCurdy, the defendant struggled with the victim inside the hallway outside of defendant’s apartment. Because of the locked front door, the hallway was only accessible to the residents of the building and their guests. The degree of privacy of the hallway led the court to a conclusion that the defendant should have been able to invoke §35.15 during his trial. Similarly, in People v. Cruz-Sanchez, the court deemed the porch of the defendant’s home to be a dwelling as a matter of law. A porch, as the court in Cruz-Sanchez reasoned, was a “part of structure where the defendant lives and where others are ordinarily excluded—the antithesis of which is routine access to or use of an area by strangers.” Thus, exclusive access plays a key role in determining whether a certain structure fits within the legal meaning of a dwelling.
The New York case law does not offer a clear answer as to what constitutes a dwelling within §35.15. Nevertheless, the relevant precedents set up a guiding framework that can be used to establish whether the term dwelling extends to various places. The framework dictates that a dwelling cannot be located within a public domain accessible by strangers. Consequently, the more restricted—or exclusive—an access to a place is, the higher the chances that a defendant’s dwelling will be included in the definition.
Matos’s residence—made from interlinked cardboard boxes—is unlikely to be deemed a dwelling within §35.15 of the New York Penal Law. As shown by the precedents, apartments and houses routinely qualify as a dwelling. At the very least, dwelling implies having a proprietary interest in a residence, the owner of which retains a right to exclude or include others as he pleases. In this case, Matos’s housing was located on a public space next to a hair salon—Matos did not own the land where his dwelling was located. The only thing Matos owned was structure made of cardboard, located on a public domain for which bystanders had direct access. Nothing prevented random strangers from invading the cardboard structure except for Matos himself. Therefore, Matos’s box shelter has very slim chances of qualifying as a dwelling under Article 35.
There are, however, more impediments facing Matos’s defense. Even if the cardboard boxes were considered a dwelling, Matos’s defense will likely fail due to the fact that he acted in self-defense while outside of the boxes. On top of that, one can hardly imagine a court favoring Matos’s defense due to public policy concerns. With about 60,000 homeless people in New York—3,000 of which live on the streets—any court would be hesitant to set a precedent justifying the homeless to defend an occupied piece of public property with deadly force.
Overall, Mr. Matos’s defense will likely fail the dwelling element of a castle doctrine, as the doctrine does not seem to expand to untraditional residences like cardboard boxes. Moreover, Matos did not, and likely had no right to, restrict the access to his shelter, which was located in a public space. Consequently, Matos has marginal chances of prevailing on the castle doctrine claim.
 Nikita Stewart & Jan Ransom, He Says He Stabbed a Student to Defend His Home. His Home Is a Box., The New York Times (Jan 15. 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/15/nyregion/homeless-stabbing-college-students.html.
 N.Y. Penal Law §35.15(2)(a) (2020).
 Id. at (2)(a)(i).
 People v. Tomlins, 213 N.Y. 240, 243 (1914).
 People v. White, 484 N.Y.S.2d 994, 996 (Sup. Ct. 1984).
 N.Y. Penal Law §140.00(3) (2020).
 People v. Aiken, 4 N.Y.3d 324, 326 (2005).
 Id. at 329.
 Id. at 330.
 See People v. Hernandez, 721 N.Y.S.2d 633, 633 (App. Div. 1st Dept. 2001) (holding that justification under §35.15 was inapplicable because the shooting occurred outside of defendant’s apartment, an area not within defendant’s dwelling.); See also People v. Duren, 652 N.Y.S.2d 297, 298 (App. Div. 2nd Dept. 1996) (affirming the judgment that the defendant had a duty to retreat because the crime in question took place in the lobby of defendant’s apartment building, and not his dwelling.)
 People v. McCurdy, 450 N.Y.S.2d 507, 510 (App. Div. 2nd Dept. 1982)
 Id. at 508-509.
 Id. at 510.
 “Access to the hallway was limited to residents of the building and their guests. A locked front door insured this security. The incident itself took place at the foot of the stairs leading to the apartment. The degree of privacy of the brownstone and its hallway compels us to conclude that the jury should have been told that defendant had no duty to retreat, if he reasonably believed that Bradford was using, or was about to use, deadly physical force.” People v. McCurdy, 450 N.Y.S.2d 507, 510 (App. Div. 2nd Dept. 1982).
 People v. Cruz-Sanchez, 821 N.Y.S.2d 856, 857 (Cnty. Ct. 2006).
 Tyler Blint-Welsh, Federal Data Shows Nearly 80,000 Homeless in New York City, The Wall Street Journal (24 Oct. 2019), https://www.wsj.com/articles/federal-data-show-nearly-80-000-homeless-in-new-york-city-11571922000.