When Is Self-Defense Justified?

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  • James Notaris

    CPA, ESQ, Legal Editor

  • Tyler Dikun

    Executive Editor

One of the basic laws in life is that a person has the right to protect themself from an imminent threat. If someone is shooting at you, holds you at knife point, or even lays a single finger on your body, you have the right to self-preservation. In the U.S, every defendant, no matter the crime, has the right to plead self-defense.

Even though what constitutes self-defense varies from state to state, there are certain universal truths when it comes to determining if a violent act was indeed enacted in self-defense. Learn more about various circumstances in which self-defense can be enacted and why self-defense may be dismissed. 

What Constitutes Self-Defense?

Broadly speaking, self-defense is interpreted as any counteractive action undertaken to prevent damage or suffering. Although it may seem clear cut that the self-defense clause can be used if someone chases you with a knife, problems can arise when determining the sufficient level of violence needed to ward someone off.

For instance, if someone was indeed chasing you with a knife, is it within the self-defense clause to shoot them? Problems also arise when it is discovered that the victim actually provoked the attack to begin with. As you can see, self-defense isn’t exactly a clear-cut case. In order to determine self-defense, states typically look for these underlying circumstances.

Is There An Imminent Threat?

The first circumstance where self-defense can arise is if there is an imminent threat. This threat can be physical or verbal, but offensive words that do not create the feeling of an imminent threat cannot cause someone to use self-defense.

Once the threat has been subdued or ended, the victim cannot pursue the assailant. Ultimately, once the danger has ended, the victim cannot carry on with any physical action or said action would be considered retaliatory and therefore not self-defense.

Was There A Reasonable Fear of Harm?

When determining self-defense, a jury must decide whether a reasonable person would have perceived a threat and therefore responded in the same manner. For example, if a stranger comes up to you in order to give you a hug, but you push him away and he falls, breaking his arm, some may see this as an assault.

A court may rule that a stranger coming up to you for a hug is an invasion of your personal space and you acted in self-defense. The court has therefore ruled that a reasonable person would perceive the threat as you did.

What Is Meant By Imperfect Self-defense?

When self-defense is used in a situation that is deemed an unreasonable fear of harm, this is known as an imperfect self-defense. While an imperfect self-defense is still classified as a violent crime, the person in question may face lesser charges because they still believed they were acting out of self-defense. Although, it is important to note that not every state recognizes self-defense. 

If you attend a sporting event and your team scores, a complete stranger may go for a celebratory high-five. Yet, you may perceive this high-five as an attack and respond in self-defense. Any reasonable person understands that a high-five is a very routine action at a sporting event, even among strangers. The violent action you take in response would still be classified as an assault, but may carry lesser penalties because you acted in imperfect self-defense.

What Is Proportional Response?

Proportional response is always considered in every case of self-defense. Self-defense law requires that the response matches the level of threat. If someone tries to slash you with a dagger, you cannot take your firearm out and start shooting.

Any weapon up to a knife would be considered a proportional response. Furthermore, if the threat involves a minor force like a slap, you cannot start wailing away. This too would be classified as a disproportionate response.

What Is Duty to Retreat?

While most states have removed the “duty to retreat” clause, it is important to still understand it. In some states, a person must first make an attempt to retreat if faced with an imminent threat before using violent force. 

What Does “Stand Your Ground” Mean?

Many states have done away with “duty to retreat” and adopted “stand your ground” laws instead. States that adopt “stand your ground” recognize that the victim does not actually have to retreat in an instance of imminent threat. These laws are typically applied in instances where non-lethal force is used.

What Is The Castle Doctrine?

In several states, a person is legally able to use lethal force against someone who unlawfully enters their home. According to Castle Doctrine, a person has the right to defend their property from an intruder by any means necessary. The law varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, so please dial 911 first if you believe an intruder is in your home.

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