It is widely accepted on principle that a person may protect themselves from harm under appropriate circumstances, even when that behavior would normally amount to a crime. In the United States' legal system, each state allows a defendant to claim self-defense when accused of a violent crime. Federal law allows this, as well.
The specific rules pertaining to self-defense vary from one state to the next, however. This article addresses broad concepts that make up self-defense law in the U.S., but one should check the laws of a particular state to understand the specific requirements for a claim of self-defense there
What Is Self-Defense?
Self-defense is defined as a person protecting themselves by responding to force or violence with force or violence. This definition may seem simple enough, but it raises many questions when it is put into play in real life.
Courts struggle with determining what amounts to an appropriate level of force or violence when a person defends themselves. What goes beyond that level? In reviews of what amounts to such appropriate levels of violence, courts often consider the following:
- What if the victim of a violent crime is found to have provoked the attack?
- Are victims obligated to retreat from the violence if possible?
- What protection exists for victims who feel, on reasonable grounds, that threats actually exist, in cases where such a threat actually does not, according to what laws require concerning when a violent response to a threat is permitted?
To put that last question in another way, what should happen when a victim really feels as though there is a threat against which they need to defend themselves, but in reality, there really is not such a threat, as law defines such a threat.Undoubtedly, self-defense law is more complicated than it first appears. In order to handle the many circumstances under which self-defense takes place, states have come up with rules to determine when self-defense is allowed and how much force a victim can use to protect themselves. But keep in mind that the exact rules differ between states, but the considerations are often the same or at least similar.
Is the Threat Imminent?
As a general rule, self-defense only justifies the use of force when it is used in response to an imminent threat. For a threat to be imminent, it must be certain to occur. Such a threat can be made with words, as long as it puts the intended victim in a reasonable and immediate fear of physical harm. Without such a threat, offensive words do not justify the use of force in self-defense.
Consider the following scenario for an example of such a situation. A jealous ex-lover confronts his former girlfriend and shouts, "I'm going to kill you!" He brandishes a knife and steps forward. In such a case, the victim of the threat would be within her rights to defend herself, because a reasonable person would fear physical harm in such a situation. Therefore, if she had pepper spray in her purse, she would be justified in using it to fend off her angry ex. Had he simply approached and said, "We need to talk," she would not be legally justified in pepper spraying him regardless of how annoying he might be.
Moreover, the use of force in self-defense generally loses justification once the threat has ended. For example, if an aggressor assaults a victim but then stops doing so and indicates that there is no longer any threat of violence, then the threat of danger has ended. Any use of force by the victim against the perpetrator at that point would be considered retaliatory and not self-defense.
For the purposes of providing an example of such a situation, consider the following scenario. Two players in a rec league basketball game argue over a foul call until one punches the other in the face. After delivering the punch, the player quits the game and leaves the gym. A few hours later, the same two players coincidentally encounter each other in the grocery store. At this point, the original confrontation is over. So, absent a new attack or imminent threat of harm, the punched player would not be legally justified to throw a sucker punch in the produce aisle. Under those circumstances, that use of force would be considered retaliatory and not for valid purposes of self-defense.
Was the Fear of Harm Reasonable?
Sometimes, self-defense is legally justified even if the perceived aggressor did not actually mean the perceived victim any harm. What matters in these situations is whether a “reasonable person" in the same situation would have perceived an immediate threat of physical harm.
Under the legal concept of the “reasonable person," legal systems determine whether a person's feelings and experience of imminent danger justify the use of force as a response to a threat.
As an example, imagine two strangers walking past each other in a city park. A bee is buzzing around the head of one of the two people. The other person sees this. Trying to be friendly, the other person reaches quickly to try to swat the bee away from the bee's soon-to-be-victim. The person with the bee by their head, only seeing a stranger's hand move quickly toward their face, might understandably slap the other person's hand away violently.
In other circumstances, the slap would amount to a textbook assault, but a court could easily find that the sudden movement of a stranger's hand toward a person's face would cause a reasonable person to conclude that they were in danger of immediate physical harm. This would likely render the use of force a justifiable exercise of the right to self-defense. It would not matter that the perceived attacker meant no harm and was, in fact, actually trying to help!
Sometimes, a person may have a genuine fear of imminent physical harm that is not objectively reasonable. If that person uses force to defend themselves from the perceived threat, the legal situation is known as “imperfect self-defense."
Imperfect self-defense does not excuse a person from the crime of using violence, but it can lessen the charges and penalties involved. Not every state recognizes imperfect self-defense as a reason to lessen a sentence, however.
For example, a student is studying at a coffee shop when a classmate arrives and walks directly toward the first student and balls up his fist in anticipation of a friendly "fist-bump" greeting. The student is alarmed and genuinely fears that their classmate is preparing to punch them, even though this fear is unreasonable. In reaction to the perceived threat, the student flings his coffee cup at the classmate's face and scrambles away. While the student's claim of self-defense would not excuse any criminal charge for assault with the coffee cup, it could reduce the severity of the charges or the eventual punishment. The student's self defense claim is imperfect because of the unreasonable nature of how he perceived a threat.
Some states also consider instances where the person claiming self-defense provoked the attack as imperfect self-defense. For example, if a person creates a conflict that becomes violent, then unintentionally kills the other party while defending themselves, a claim of self-defense might reduce the charges or punishment. However, the defense would not excuse the killing entirely.
Self-defense law requires the response to match the level of the threat in question. In other words, a person can only employ as much force as required to remove the threat. If the threat involves deadly force, the person defending themselves can use deadly force to counteract the threat. If, however, the threat involves only minor force and the person claiming self-defense uses force that could cause grievous bodily harm or death, their claim of self-defense will fail.
Duty to Retreat
The original laws regarding self-defense required people claiming self-defense to first make an attempt to avoid the violence before using force. This is also known as a “duty to retreat." While most states have removed this rule for instances involving the use of nonlethal force, many states still require that a person make an attempt to escape the situation before applying lethal force. It is important to be familiar with the laws of the local jurisdiction to determine whether this duty is required in a given situation.
Stand Your Ground
In contrast to the duty to retreat, many states have enacted so-called “stand your ground" laws. These laws remove the duty to retreat and allow for a claim of self-defense even if the person making the claim did nothing to flee from the threat of violence.
Today, this is the more common rule when situations involve nonlethal force. However, states are split on whether the "stand your ground" principle applies to situations that involve lethal force.
For more information, this article delineates which states have "stand your ground" laws, and which states use a different legal standard.
Even in states that require a person to retreat from the threat of imminent harm before defending themselves, a person can often use deadly force against someone who unlawfully enters their home.
This rule, also known as “the castle doctrine," allows people to defend their homes against intruders through the use of lethal force.
Like most of these rules, the exact result will vary according to the jurisdiction and the specific facts of the case. For some more in-depth information, additional material on the castle doctrine is available online, but when in doubt, it is always a good idea to consult with a local attorney to get answers.
Need Help with a Claim of Self-Defense?
Self-defense claims are fairly common, but the rules about the situations in which a person can defend themselves and the amount of force they are allowed to use can be complicated. Everything can be made much simpler with the advice of a competent local attorney. Find an experienced criminal defense attorney near you with the click of a button.