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The defense of self-defense is when a defendant claims that they were using reasonable force to protect themselves from a threat. Even if the force that the defendant used would be considered criminal under normal circumstances, it isn’t if they were doing it to protect themselves.
Self-defense is a complicated concept, and self-defense laws vary significantly from state to state. There are several conditions that must be met for an action to be considered self-defense. The defendant must have reasonably believed that their actions were necessary to protect against a threat. The law uses the concept of the “reasonable person” to determine this, which means that the judge or jury must determine if a reasonable person would have felt threatened in the situation where self-defense measures were taken. Note that this doesn’t mean that the defendant must be correct in their belief that they’re threatened, only that it was reasonable for them to feel that way.
For example, consider a situation where a defendant struck an individual after that person pointed a gun at them. Even if it turns out that the gun was only a toy meant to look like a real gun, the defendant could still use the defense that they were defending themselves, because a reasonable person would feel threatened in that situation.
Self-defense only applies in situations where the defendant fears physical harm from an imminent threat. The defendant can also only use the amount of force necessary to remove the threat to themselves. If they’re threatened with deadly force, such as a gun or a knife, then they can use deadly force to defend themselves. Minor threats do not constitute the use of deadly force. It’s difficult for a court to determine what the appropriate level of force was in response to a threat, which is part of what makes self-defense cases hard to judge. In some situations, it’s cut and dry. Against an armed attacker, deadly force is usually reasonable. But what if the attacker was unarmed, but the defendant still feared for their life? This also fits the definition of self-defense, but it’s up to the defense attorney to ensure that the judge or jury sees it that way.
Once there is no longer a threat, the defendant cannot continue using force. If a man gets punched outside a bar and his assailant then walks away, he can’t run after the assailant, attack them and claim self-defense, because it would be considered a retaliatory attack.
There are three key types of laws related to self-defense: duty to retreat, stand your ground and castle doctrine.
Duty to retreat means that a person must attempt to avoid a violent situation before they respond with force to defend themselves. Most states do not have a duty to retreat when it comes to using nonlethal force in self-defense, but many do have a duty to retreat before a person can legally use lethal force to defend themselves.
Stand your ground laws are the opposite of duty to retreat, as they allow a person to use force in self-defense without trying to avoid the situation. It’s common for states to have stand your ground laws that apply to the use of nonlethal force, but a duty to retreat that applies with the use of lethal force, although some states also have stand your ground laws that apply to both situations.
Castle doctrine allows a person to use force against someone who breaks into their home. What level of self-defense is allowable depends on the state and the situation. Some states will allow the use of deadly force whenever an intruder breaks into a person’s home, whereas others require that the person feel that their life is in danger to justify the use of deadly force. When castle doctrine applies, there is no duty for the person to retreat.
The defense of self-defense can be critical in whether or not a defendant is convicted of a crime. Because of the complexities regarding self-defense laws, a defendant claiming they acted in self-defense should hire a skilled attorney to prepare their defense.
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