Duress is caused when a victim commits a crime because they were held against their free will by threat of force or actual force and violence. A defendant who is claiming they committed a crime due to duress may not be charged or held liable for the crime even though they are legally admitting to the act because the act was committed due to the duress.

In civil court, you have a right to raise a duress defense if force or violence was used to compel you to enter into a contract, or to break one.

Requirements of a Duress Defense?

Duress is a defense used to justify an illegal act. A defendant who claims they acted under duress must typically show the following three elements:

  1. They were in immediate danger that could result in death or serious bodily harm;
  2. They were fearful that the person would actually cause them harm; and
  3. There was no other reasonable way to avoid the potential harm other than committing the illegal act.

Murder and Duress

Most states do not allow a person to use duress as a defense for murder, however, some may reduce a murder charge to a lesser crime, such as, manslaughter.

For the charge of manslaughter, the “duress” would be more appropriately called “provocation” where a person is provoked into killing another person due to the heat of passion. However this requires certain elements to exist, which are different from duress.

Ultimately, the legal system is hesitant to say that someone can use duress as a defense to murder, as it would mean that someone can be coerced/forced into killing another person. While certain factors can change the situation, like if multiple people were threatened with immediately bodily harm and/or death unless the defendant committed murder.

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Contracts and Duress

Under contract law there are two types of duress. The first is referred to as physical duress. An example of this serious form of duress would be forcing someone to enter into a contract under gunpoint. Contracts formed under physical duress are void.

The second form of contract duress is referred to as economic duress. Like if a person would face complete financial ruin unless they agreed to sign the contract. These contracts are considered voidable instead of void, because a person ultimately has a choice to honor the contract or not. The elements for economic duress are as follows:

  1. There is an on-going contract between the plaintiff and defendant;
  2. The defendant threatens to terminate the existing contract; and
  3. The plaintiff was under duress to accept the defendant’s terms and signs the contract.

Contracts entered into by economic duress are still improper, but there is still a question as to whether it is voidable. In order to use the defense of economic duress, the plaintiff should be prepared to show that their situation meets the elements.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

If you have been accused of a crime and believe you have a duress defense, then you should consult the advice of a criminal defense lawyer. Duress can reduce any charges you might face, and if it applies, it can be a complete defense. If you are facing a lawsuit for breach of contract and believe duress was used in signing the contract, then you will want to reach out to a business lawyer who can help you navigate the entire process.