You are arrested and charged with a crime but believe that you had a valid legal reason for your actions or otherwise should be exempt from criminal liability. Now what? You will need to research and develop a criminal defense strategy to argue your case.
A criminal defense strategy often includes evidence illustrating justifications, excuses, or mitigating factors for your alleged criminal acts. If a defendant is able to successfully establish any of these defenses, they may be able to negate criminal liability or significantly decrease the sentencing of a criminal case.
Keep in mind that the availability of these defenses will depend on the specific facts of your case as well as your jurisdiction's rules and applicable state laws. An experienced criminal defense attorney will be familiar with these factors, which can greatly help in crafting a strong criminal defense strategy.
One defense a defendant may have available is that their actions were justified. This will depend on the specific circumstances of the incident, as some actions are only justified in certain scenarios while viewed as criminal in others.
Proving justification can get the charges dropped and clear a defendant from any criminal liability. Below are some examples of justification based defenses:
- Self-defense and defense of others;
- Defense of property where deadly force is not used;
- Crime prevention (using deadly force is generally only restricted to dangerous felonies under this defense);
- Necessity, which means that a person causes harm in order to prevent an even greater harm to society. For example, this could include breaking a water pipe in order to stop a fire from burning down a neighborhood; and
- Reasonable mistake of fact.
These are all examples of situations where society will view and accept a person’s otherwise criminal behavior as appropriate and justified.
Another defense that a defendant may use is that they had an excuse for committing the alleged criminal act. However, this is not as strong of a defense as one based on a justification because they do not negate a defendant's wrongful act.
In an excuse case, even though the acts are labeled criminal the defendant will lack “moral guilt” which can ultimately get rid or limit any criminal punishment. Below are some examples of excuse based defenses:
- Duress or coercion, which is a situation where the defendant committed a criminal act under threat of immediate bodily harm or death. Remember that this defense can never be used to justify homicide;
- Involuntary intoxication, which refers to circumstances where the defendant became intoxicated through no fault of his own. For example, if somebody roofied the defendant, they cannot be deemed responsible for getting intoxicated and committing crimes in such a state;
- Legal insanity, which is when a defendant's mental defect prevents understanding or control over their actions. This defense may be harder to prove than others;
- Entrapment, which is when the criminal act originated with an inducement from law enforcement. This can also be a “fine line” situation since law enforcement undercover operations can be viewed as legal in many instances;
- A person’s age can also be used as a defense, as some criminal statutes set a minimum age for criminal liability (this is usually 13 or 14 years old); and
- Reasonable mistake of fact.
The defense of “mitigating factors” is different from justification and excuse because the defendant cannot completely avoid liability with this type of defense. However, if mitigating factors are present the defendant may be charged with a lesser offense or receive a lighter sentence.
Mitigating factors usually focus on the defendant's mental state, which can eliminate the defendant's specific intent to commit a criminal act. Below are some examples of mitigating factors based defenses:
- Voluntary intoxication may negate some specific intent or premeditation to commit a crime. This differs from involuntary intoxication because the defendant made a conscious decision to become intoxicated;
- Diminished capacity is available in some jurisdictions when insanity cannot be fully established. This means that if a person has some mental defects, some intent to commit the crime can be viewed as out of their control;
- Reasonable and unreasonable mistakes;
- Heat of passion, which is when a person commits a crime while provoked. This comes into play a lot to drop a murder charge to voluntary manslaughter; and
- Imperfect self-defense, which refers to a situation where a defendant applies deadly force, making an honest but unreasonable mistake that such force is necessary for self-defense. This is another defense commonly asserted to drop a murder charge to voluntary manslaughter.
A qualified criminal defense attorney can help you develop a successful defense strategy. An attorney may can determine if their are any excuses, justifications, and mitigating factors to decrease your criminal liability. An attorney will also be familiar with your state’s laws to determine which defenses can be used for each crime and whether the defense fits in with the facts of your case.