Self-defense, also known as “justifiable use of deadly force” is one of the most commonly used legal arguments in the courtroom.  More often than not, people resort to physical violence when they are in defense of themselves, their property, and other people.
Self-defense arguments can be quite complicated to prove in any court of law. A good defense attorney and a substantial amount of evidence are vital in convincing a jury of your innocence We made this blog post to let you understand the precepts of self-defense so you can legally protect yourself and your family.
Legal Definition of Self-Defense
As the word itself strongly suggests, self-defense is one of the most fundamental instincts of human beings. In cases of physical aggression, the defender believes that they have to use physical force to preserve their life, property or people near them.
Self-defense must be established properly by the defense attorney. To establish such an argument, in duty to retreat states the person must not be at fault, and must not display any aggressive behavior and has no means of escape or retreat. Also, his or her life should be in imminent danger.
There are some conditions in using deadly force in self-defense. There must be sufficient physical force to protect yourself, but not too excessive to cause the loss of life. However, if the aggressor is endangering your life, then force that may cause great bodily harm can be used. 
When is Self-Defense Justified?
As suggested earlier, self-defense is justified when there is imminent danger. Using physical force to prevent an impending injury is reasonable enough. The force applied must be non-deadly, and should ideally for self-protection. However, instances wherein fleeing from the attacker is deemed impossible, the use of deadly force to fend off a life-threatening physical blow.
The law of the land allows everyone to defend his own home, fenced ground surrounding the home, automobile, and place of work or business. In defending your property in the mentioned areas, retreating or escaping is not required. 
Different Laws that Support Self-Defense
There are different laws that support and affirm a self-defense case in court. These laws might someday be useful for you. Thus, it is important to read them carefully.
Stand Your Ground
The first law supporting self-defense is the “Stand Your Ground law”. This law entitles a person to the use of lethal force as an act of self-defense in public. What this means is that the law repeals a person’s duty to retreat. Furthermore, the law states that a person, under certain conditions, can defend themselves through the use of force even without first attempting to withdraw from the danger.
Despite the option to retreat safely, the “Stand Your Ground” law encourages individuals to fight back by using physical force to defend themselves. This fact has upended legal traditions that have been present for centuries. This law is the opposite of the “Duty to Retreat” law. 
Interpretations of the law vary per state. Some states maintain an individual’s duty to withdraw in the event that lethal force is present while other states remove the duty to withdraw completely.
The second law is Castle Doctrine and it concerns the defense of property. This law provides any person the legal right to defend themselves if an intruder trespasses their house or property. Furthermore, the law allows the use of lethal force, if the attack becomes life-threatening. The Castle Doctrine encourages defense of property, and thus, makes it strikingly similar to the Stand Your Ground law.
Another similarity is that both laws provide an individual defending themselves or their property with immunity from prosecution. However, the difference is that the Castle Doctrine solely applies in situations where the victim is in their home, property, or place of business. 
Why are the Stand Your Ground and Castle Doctrine Laws Controversial?
The recent years have shown a numerous amount of controversy about the Stand Your Ground and Castle Doctrine laws. Those who enforce laws and prosecute criminals have mostly affirmed how these laws make it hard to prosecute people who shoot alleged intruders and claim it as self-defense.
George Zimmerman’s acquittal from the shooting of Trayvon Martin last 2012 sparked a lot of controversy for the Stand Your Ground and Castle Doctrine laws. Many other American lawyers felt that gun violence has substantially increased because of these laws. Those who oppose these laws mentioned how dangerous it can be to allow vigilantism in their neighborhoods, cities, and states. 
Duty to Retreat
Early common law declared the defendant’s duty to retreat to the wall before resorting to using lethal force against an attacker. However, in jurisdictions that adhere to the Duty to Retreat doctrine, defendants are mandated to withdraw in the event that there is an objectively rational belief that the assailant will cause serious injury or death and that withdrawing will not unreasonably escalate the chances of serious injury or death.
Furthermore, the Model Penal Code states the duty to retreat. It states that the use of lethal force is not reasonable if the victim knows that they can circumvent the need to use lethal force with complete safety through retreating. 
Example of the Duty to Retreat
Sandy and Sue begin to have a disagreement in the park. Sue pulls a knife out of the sheath strapped to her leg and starts to walk toward Sandy. Sandy also possesses a knife and is hiding it in her pocket. In states that follow the retreat doctrine, Sandy is required to attempt to escape since she can run freely and shout for help in the park.
Stand Your Ground and Castle Doctrine States:
There are 35 states that have applied the “Stand Your Ground” law in an absolute manner. There are 27 states that apply the full Stand Your Ground law. There is no duty to retreat when you face physical assaults. These are:
- New Hampshire
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
Pennsylvania, however, has a limitation on the no-duty-to-retreat principle to a situation wherein a deadly weapon is used by the attacker.
There are 8 other states that have the Stand Your Ground law, but they require a case law or jury instruction.  These states are:
- New Mexico
Jury instructions are governing legalities on how members of a jury should behave when they have to decide on a court case. This often refers to with whom the case can be discussed, since it might affect how jurors will decide on the case. This essentially gives fair guidelines on how jurors should act for the trial to remain fair.  There are some states that have adopted the Stand Your Ground law, but only when a person is in his or her vehicle. These states are Wisconsin, North Dakota and Ohio.
The following states apply the Castle Doctrine to defend themselves in their homes, place of work and vehicles, but require duty to retreat in public places:
- New York
- New Jersey
- Rhode Island
Duty to Retreat States
There are currently 15 states that require their citizens to practice Duty to Retreat when they can do it without getting physically hurt. All of the states that have Duty to Retreat do not apply when the defender is in his home or vehicle. The states to be mentioned below also do not require Duty to Retreat when they are defending themselves against sexual assault, burglary, robbery, and kidnapping.  The following states are:
- New Jersey
- New York
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- New York
States that have Modified Laws for Self-Defense Arguments in Court
There are some states that don’t fully adhere to the Stand Your Ground law. They have modified their own self-defense laws, and declared that Stand Your Ground should only be allowed if the circumstances force you. These “circumstances” eventually decide if your action is justifiable or not.
In Colorado, you are allowed to apply physical force for self-defense for serious physical assaults, sexual attacks, and kidnapping.  In Virginia, the use of force that could cause serious physical injury is allowed when someone trespasses your house, and the intruder tries to injure you.  In Vermont, fighting your aggressor is allowed to prevent yourself from any physical assaults. You have to also prove a valid reason for your physical self-defense in court since physical attacks are highly discouraged in the state. 
The Castle Doctrine law in Illinois does not permit the use of deadly force against an intruder. They will only allow the use of strong physical force if your life is in imminent danger.  The self-defense law in Pennsylvania has been changed in 2011. According to the revised self-defense law, the use of deadly force is not allowed outside the home or vehicle. Violence however, is unacceptable if there is no threat to your life.
Last 2018, Idaho expanded the meaning of acceptable homicide. It now includes defending your home against burglary. It also includes the defense of your occupied vehicle and workplace from any harm. Ohio also amended their law on self-defense. Their law-makers reversed the denial of their Governor of House Bill 228. That bill places the burden of countering a claim on self-defense to the prosecutors and not on those who own guns. This gives gun owners more leverage to use their firearm for self-defense. 
What are the Four Elements of Self-Defense?
There are four elements that are necessary for proving a self-defense argument in court: the attack must be unprovoked, there should be an imminent threat that will cause physical injury or death, there should be an objectively reasonable degree of force used in response to an attack, and there should be a reasonable fear of physical injury or death. All of the four elements must be present to claim a self-defense argument successfully. The Model Penal Code defines self-defense as “justifiable when the actor believes that such force is immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting himself against the use of unlawful force by such other person on the present occasion.”
As highlighted in the (State v. Williams of 2010), a defendant is not capable of claiming self-defense if he or she initiates the attack. But still, this comes with two exceptions. The first exception is when the defendant initiates an aggressive behavior and still uses a self-defense argument in court as the attacked individual reacts with an excessive force. The other exception is when the defendant withdrew from the attack but the attacked individual persisted. 
As the phrase suggests, this is an immediate attack. The law acknowledges that when you protect yourself by applying the same amount of physical force used by the aggressor, this qualifies as self-defense. However, if you have been previously attacked by the same person and makes a planned retaliatory response, then you cannot claim this as an imminent attack.
The most appropriate response when you have been previously threatened by an aggressor is to inform law enforcement. Then, you will obtain legal protection, and they will help you process the paperwork for a possible lawsuit. Another situation that needs to be reported to law enforcers is when a future attack has been made. 
An Objectively Reasonable Degree of Force that was Used in Response to a Threat
A defendant cannot claim self-defense if the degree of force they applied when they were attacked is unreasonable. All American citizens are allowed to apply the same amount of force used by his aggressor. It could be difficult to prove this in court if there are no witnesses or videos that can justify the claims of self-defense. As a general rule, the only time when a citizen can use deadly force for self-defense is when he or she is threatened by serious bodily injury, imminent death, and serious felony. This is based in the Or. Rev. Stat. 2010. Serious felony and serious bodily injury are both technical terms defined in the case or statute. It always varies per state.
An Objectively Reasonable Fear of Injury or Death
Nobody can claim self-defense if they haven’t been physically assaulted first. Whenever there is a serious and imminent threat on your life, then self-defense is the most logical action to be taken. If there is no imminent threat of physical injury that can be proven strongly in court, you will be charged with imperfect self-defense.
Imperfect self-defense is when a person uses an unreasonable amount of force because of an unreasonable fear of impending danger. If your actions are proven to be imperfect self-defense in court, your penalties and level of charge will be reduced. You will still be considered guilty of a crime, and the degree of the crime committed does not really matter. 
Below are other laws that support a self-defense claim in a court of law:
Defense of Others
The law regarding defending others from an imminent threat or danger is akin to the law regarding self-defense. The use of force to protect a threatened individual in danger may secure someone from criminal charges. However, this is ultimately dependent on the jury’s interpretations of whether the accused has justly responded to true imminent danger or not.
The law may be applied if the following conditions are met:
- The defendant suspected that an individual would suffer from serious physical harm or even death;
- The defendant acted accordingly to how any sensible individual would act within those conditions;
- The defendant reacted appropriately and used a reasonable amount of physical force necessary to terminate or remove the individual from the imminent danger they were in.
Similar to the law regarding self-defense, the threat must have been interpreted according to how any sensible person would interpret it. Holding the belief that intervention was necessary by the defendant is inadequate in itself to fully protect them from criminal charges. Proof that they acted reasonably, and that any other person would act similarly under those similar circumstances or threats must be provided.
How is the Defense of Others Law Applied?
The law on defending others from threat necessitates that the defendant had used comparable force that the victim would have used in self-defense. This is a rule commonly known as the rule of the alter ego. Once the victim claims that they would not have utilized that level of force in self-defense, this law would no longer be able to protect the defendant, and they may be subjected to criminal charges.
An example of such a situation would be a fight rehearsal. If the two actors were practicing, and the defendant was under the impression that the two were in a real fight and would step in and cause injury or physical harm to one of the actors, the law on defending others from imminent threat could not be used to justify his/her acts. The “victim” was not in any foreseeable danger from an “aggressor,” and the defendant’s use of force was unwarranted. As a result, the defendant could be subjected to charges regarding physical harm to another individual. This entails that the rule of the alter ego is similar to the doctrine of reasonableness.
Can A Person Apply Deadly Force in Defense of Others?
The utilization of deadly force in order to protect other persons from threat or danger is warranted and legitimate when the defendant justly presumed that without such kind of force, the victim would be subjected to bodily harm that can potentially cause death.
Circumstances matter in regards to the use of deadly force in protecting an individual. Plain physical assault does not necessitate the use of deadly force to prevent the danger, and as such, it would not be justified in court. Other cases may necessitate the use of deadly force, but the conditions regarding the incident must be checked.
The conditions listed below must be met without any form of limitations, in order to warrant the use of deadly force in the defense of others:
- A relationship between the defendant and the victim must have been present before the incident;
- The incident should not have been started by the defendant (the victim must bear witness to the fact/ lack thereof);
- If the attacker was a serial killer, but the defendant had no knowledge of this at the time, the new knowledge cannot be used as a form of defense in court.
- The defendant must not have been committing any crime when the incident occurred.
- If the defendant was committing any crime when the incident occurred, the law on defending others from danger cannot be used to aid him/her in court. 
What are the Laws about the Defense of Property?
There are existing specific laws on how an individual defends one’s property in the US States. The use of force is feasible as an act of defense when one’s property or home is threatened. In doing so, you must be able to back up these claims of using defense when your property or home is threatened through damage or loss by another person. If you are unable to prove this, you can be possibly charged with being liable for causing harm to another individual by injury or death. Do keep in mind that defending property is different from defending oneself or defending or protecting other people.
Defending one’s property through force is allowed in certain circumstances in all US states.
Laws involving property defense categorizes property into two types: personal property and real property. Here are the differences between personal and real property:
Real property pertains to land and houses or buildings located on that land while personal property pertains to belongings or goods you own located in your home. To get a better grip and understanding of these differences, reading about the defense of habitation is needed.
Definition of Defense of Habitation
The Defense of Habitation originated from an English Common Law which elaborates that an individual’s home is a representation of his castle which allows the home or property owner to use force on another individual that tries to harm their home. It was also derived from the Castle Doctrine. However, this is law is interpreted differently by different states— in some states, an individual must resist when involved in this situation while other states, an individual must retreat and not engage. When caught in these types of situations, it is best to consider these factors before inflicting brutal force onto another person. 
Elements of the Defense of Property Law:
Included in the elements of the home and property defense are:
- The use of force against a transgressor
- The use of justifiable force in defending your property
- Being able to provide evidence or proof that the intruder has the intent of damaging your property.
- The necessity of using force
The belief that the property will be harmed is not enough. Rather, an imminent danger to the property is required to claim a defense of property argument successfully in court. Also, the amount of force applied will be considered carefully in this kind of argument in court. For the most part, it must not be excessive and unreasonable. However, any person is allowed to use excessive force, or even lethal force against a trespasser who intends to harm his or her life, or anyone’s life who is in the property. 
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