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The Law of Self-Defense

With so much focus in the past few years on cases in which the defendants claimed self-defense, I thought I would discuss the basics of this claim. I will explain in general terms, but my experience is in Indians, so keep in mind that every state has laws that may differ in terms of when a self-defense claim may be used.

What Is Self-Defense

In universal terms, self-defense is the legal right to defend yourself, another person or certain kinds of property from unlawful force. The nuances of such a claim will vary from state to state. It gives individuals who are being threatened the right to use a reasonable amount of force to protect their property or to defend themselves in order to mitigate the legal jeopardy that one would be in for committing an otherwise criminal act.

Self-Defense Falls Under The Umbrella Of Affirmative Defenses

Affirmative defenses are those in which a defendant admits to committing an act which is illegal, but they claim to have done it for a variety of reasons. There are four affirmative defenses. The first and most well-known affirmative defense is the topic of this blog: self-defense. Insanity, entrapment and duress are the other affirmative defenses.

In self-defense cases the action is always the result of interactions between two live people. Most self-defense cases are usually obvious as in battery charges and domestic cases. Bar fights also generate a good number of self-defense claims. It is also legally permissible in some states to make a claim of self-defense against the police and law enforcement officers using excessive amounts of force. It’s an uphill battle, but it is legally permissible.

The Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground

Both, the Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground are subsets of self-defense claims. They define when a person may or may not have to retreat when defending themselves or their property. For instance, an example of the Castle Doctrine is if a burglar enters your home, you don’t have to try to try to escape or flee. You have the legal right to stay in and defend your home in this case.

Stand Your Ground says that if you are in a threatening situation you must try to escape or leave the situation before something happens. If someone is threatening you and you have a means of leaving the scene, you must leave. If you have no means of escape and feel threatened, then you can stand your ground.

What Happens In A Trial When Someone Makes A Self-Defense Claim

When someone claims self-defense there are typically three things that a defendant may say. 1. They may say the batter never happened. 2. They may say that a third party was responsible for the action. Or, 3. They will said “I did it with a legally justifiable reason.” This in essence buts the state’s work in half because they now have no duty to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the act.

The Burden Of Proof Shifts And Becomes A “Goldilocks” Burden

When attempting to prove a self-defense case, the burden of proof is not one of “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” because as I’ve just mentioned, the defendant admits guilt. So, the prosecutor has to prove that more force was used than was required. In other words that have to prove that the force was excessive or disproportionate to the threat posed. This is why it’s often called the “Goldilocks Burden.” You have to prove that just the right amount of force was used. If too little force was used, the defendant would probably be dead. If too much force is thought to be used, the defendant is probably going to jail.

Self-Defense Claims Have Limits

In a self-defense claim, the response of the defendant has to be in proportion to the threat. For example, if someone is punching and kicking someone, the person being kicked can’t pull out a gun and shoot the person doing the kicking and punching. That would be disproportionate to the threat.

Another limit to claiming self-defense is called “Clean Hands.” This means you can’t claim self-defense in you are breaking the law. If you’re selling drugs and the person you are selling to pulls out a gun and tries to rob your drugs and your money, you can’t pull out a gun and shoot the prospective client and claim self-defense.

You also cannot instigate the fight and claim self-defense, nor can you go out actively looking for a fight. The important thing to remember in self-defense is that the defendant had to be subjectively in fear of their safety and the action they take to defend themselves must be objectively okay.

This is just a general overview of self-defense claims. As you may gather, there are nuances and circumstances that are going to complicate every case. And it is such a personal claim that the defendant usually must take the stand if the case goes to trial. The only time this doesn’t happen is when there are witnesses that step up and tell the courts that the defendant was indeed acting in self-defense. These cases don’t have to go to court.

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