The right to use force -- even deadly force if necessary -- to defend oneself is a broadly accepted principle of the criminal justice system. But while all states allow defendants to claim self defense if they can back up such claims, states differ on the scope of what may be considered appropriate use of force and when it may be applied. For instance, some states have what are commonly referred to as "stand your ground" laws, which essentially do away with the duty to retreat from imminent danger. In states with these types of laws, individuals have the affirmative right to use deadly force to defend themselves regardless of where they are or whether they had an opportunity to retreat.
California Self Defense: The Castle Doctrine
California is not a stand your ground state, but does recognize the "castle doctrine," which applies to one's home, place of business, or other real property. Similarly, an individual using deadly force to protect his or her property has no duty to retreat. But castle doctrine rights end when an individual is no longer on his or her real property. As a general rule of thumb, any force used against an intruder must be proportionate to the harm reasonably feared.
Self Defense and California Jury Instructions
In addition to the affirmative defense provided by the castle doctrine, the Judicial Council of California provides jury instructions for how to assess a defendant's claim of self defense. While the main points of these instructions are highlighted below, it's important to point out that the right to use force in self defense (or in defense of another) ends "when the attacker withdraws or no longer appears capable of inflicting any injury."
California Self Defense Laws at a Glance
Additional details about California's self defense laws are listed in the following table.
|Statutes / Legal Authority
|Statutory Definition of Self Defense of One's Home ("Castle Doctrine")
Any person using force intended or likely to cause death or great bodily injury within his or her residence shall be presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily injury to self, family, or a member of the household when that force is used against another person, not a member of the family or household, who unlawfully and forcibly enters or has unlawfully and forcibly entered the residence and the person using the force knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry occurred.
Justifiable and excusable homicide is not punishable. The homicide appearing to be justifiable or excusable, the person indicted must, upon his trial, be fully acquitted and discharged.
|Right of Self Defense or Defense of Another (per Jury Instructions)
The defendant is not guilty of [whatever forceful act was used in self defense] if he/she used force against the other person in lawful self defense or in defense of another. The defendant acted in lawful self defense or defense of another if:
- The defendant reasonably believed that (he/she or someone else) was in imminent danger of suffering bodily injury (or was in imminent danger of being touched unlawfully);
- The defendant reasonably believed that the immediate use of force was necessary to defend against that danger; AND
- The defendant used no more force than was reasonably necessary to defend against that danger
|Right of Self Defense in Mutual Combat or as Initial Aggressor (per Jury Instructions)
A person who engages in mutual combat or who starts a fight has a right to self defense only if:
- He/she actually and in good faith tried to stop fighting;
- He/she indicated, by word or by conduct, to his/her opponent, in a way that a reasonable person would understand, that he/she wanted to stop fighting and that he/she had stopped fighting; AND
- He/she gave his/her opponent a change to stop fighting
*A person does not have the right to self defense if he or she provokes a fight or quarrel with the intent to create an excuse to use force.
|Right to Defend Real or Personal Property (per Jury Instructions)
The owner [or possessor] of real or personal property may use reasonable force to protect that property from imminent harm.
*Reasonable force means the amount of force that a reasonable person in the same situation would believe is necessary to protect the property from imminent harm.
Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.
California Self Defense Laws: Related Resources
Learn More About Your Self Defense Case: Contact an Attorney
While homicide and other violent crimes are usually charged as serious felonies, there are instances where the defendant may have acted within his or her rights. Specifically, the use of deadly force in self defense -- if justified and backed up by the facts -- will result in an acquittal of such charges. If you have been involved in such a case, you should consider a criminal defense attorney near you.