Using Self-Defense in a Criminal Case

In most criminal cases, attorneys use a legal strategy called a negating defense. The prosecution has the burden of proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt. So, the defense introduces evidence that either disproves or sheds doubt on the prosecution’s assertions. For example, if you are charged with assault and battery, your attorney might introduce eyewitnesses to testify that you never touched the alleged victim. But another strategy is to offer an affirmative defense, by which you offer evidence that proves your innocence. Sticking with the example of the assault and battery charge, your attorney could assert that you struck the alleged victim, but you had a right to because you were acting in self-defense.

What Exactly Is the Doctrine of Self-Defense?

Everyone knows intuitively that they have a right to defend themselves. Self-defense is part of The Natural Law, those universal concepts that are not based on any culture or customs but are rooted in the human condition. Our Declaration of Independence says we have the unalienable right to life, but that right would not be unalienable if we didn’t also have the right to defend it. Yet what is self-defense in criminal law? Under what circumstances can we invoke the right to self-defense? In what situations do we lose the right to self-defense? It’s important to know the basics so that if you are ever involved in an altercation, you can act within the law and retain your rights.

Self-defense is codified in the laws of the separate states. For that reason, there are important differences you should be aware of when you travel across the country. But there are basic principles that are universal:

  • You can only defend yourself when you have a reasonable fear of harm from an attack.
  • You can only use deadly force if you reasonably believe you are in danger of death or serious bodily injury.
  • Once an attacker is subdued, discontinues the conflict, or withdraws, your right to self-defense is put on pause. If you continue the conflict, you could be charged criminally.
  • Your right to self-defense extends to the protection of innocent third parties.
  • You cannot claim self-defense if you are engaged in a crime.

Let’s illustrate these points with some examples.

  • You’re on the line at the movies and someone rudely jostles you from behind. You turn and punch the guy. No right to self-defense exists, since a reasonable person would not have felt he was under attack.
  • You get into an argument with someone, and he throws a paper cup of soda at you. You hit him over the back with a chair. No right to self-defense, since being dowsed with soda, in itself, is not enough to put a reasonable person in fear of death or serious bodily injury, and you used a deadly weapon when you were not in such danger.
  • Someone pushes you, threatening to “beat your brains out.” You throw one punch, and the person withdraws. He mutters an insult, and you slug him again. In this scenario, you have a right to self-defense for the first punch, but not the second, since the attacker has withdrawn.
  • You’re out with some friends, and a buddy gets into a physical altercation. You jump in to help. In this case, you better be clear about who started the fight. If your buddy threw the first punch, or it was a case of mutual combat, you have no right to come to his aid. If the other guy attacked him without provocation, you are within your rights.

Understanding your rights can keep you out of deep trouble. But whenever you find yourself in a tense situation that could escalate, you should focus on defusing tension.

State-Specific Aspects of Self-Defense Law

As mentioned above, different states have different wrinkles in their self-defense doctrines. And while some of the differences are minor, they can make all the difference to your case. One key difference is whether you are in a “stand your ground” state or a “duty to withdraw/retreat” state. Thirty-five states have stand-your-ground laws, and 15 states impose a duty to withdraw. Here’s basically what those laws say:

  • Stand your ground — When confronted by a serious threat, you may use deadly force to defend yourself even if you might safely walk away from the situation.
  • Duty to withdraw — You cannot invoke self-defense if, at the time the situation escalated, you could have safely withdrawn from danger. It’s worth emphasizing that a duty to withdraw only exists in situations where you can do so safely. Moreover, if you attempt to withdraw and the attacker pursues you, you have fulfilled your duty and can use force in self-defense.

It bears repeating that with both of these laws, you must be in a place where you are legally allowed to be, you are not committing a crime, you were not the aggressor in the conflict, and you have a reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury.

The Castle Doctrine and Self-Defense

Even in states that impose a duty to withdraw in public, you can stand your ground within your own home, and sometimes even your place of employment. This is known as the Castle Doctrine, named after the principle that a person’s home is his castle, which he has the right to defend. So, if you hear a noise downstairs and suspect a burglar, the law assumes that you have a reasonable fear for your safety. You do not have to retreat to a safe space, such as a bedroom or closet, and wait for the burglar to breach that space before you can use deadly force.

New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut impose a duty to retreat in public but have the Castle Doctrine for the home. However, New Jersey has an interesting exception to the Castle Doctrine for domestic violence. When two persons cohabit in the same space, a person under threat has a duty to withdraw from the conflict before being allowed to use deadly force in self-defense.

Self-defense can be a potent strategy for charges ranging from assault to murder. But your actions must conform to the law. We hope this article helps you understand your rights so you can properly assert them if the need arises.