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Self Defense Laws

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What Is Self-Defense?

A person accused of assaulting or murdering someone can claim self defense if she reasonably believed she was protecting herself from an attack or assault. Persons charged with crimes of violence, such as battery assault, and murder, often raise this defense. In asserting self-defense, the accused admits to committing the crime, but claims that her actions were justified due to the physical threat of the other person.

When Is Self-Defense Justified?

Self-Defense is justified when the person claiming self-defense:

  • Was physically attacked by another (the attack must be physical, offensive words alone are not enough) or witnesses another person being physically attacked by a third party
  • Did not attack the other person first
  • Believes that the use of force is or was necessary to prevent the danger from occurring or continuing
  • Did not use more force than was reasonably necessary to avoid further injury

Sometimes a claim of self-defense doesn't even require that you be attacked. You merely have to show that you reasonably believed you were about to be harmed. However, those claiming self-defense must prove that they fulfilled the duty to retreat: a duty to attempt to resolve the issue without deadly force, or failing negotiation, to simply flee. Self-defense is a valid legal defense, but it must be a last resort after all means of escape are gone.

When Is Self-Defense Not Justified?

Even when being attacked, there are certain circumstances under which a person should not defend himself:

  • Unreasonable or excessive force in response to an attack is not self-defense
  • In some states, you are required to withdraw from or escape the situation before you can defend yourself
  • You cannot claim self-defense if you started the fight
  • You cannot claim self-defense if the original crime or assault was over. For example, a victim of sexual assault cannot chase down the offender, kill the person, and then claim self-defense.

Does Self-Defense Apply to Assault from Pets?

Yes, self-defense applies to assault from non-human animals as well. As long as the guidelines were followed, self-defense is an appropriate legal defense to killing animals, regardless of whenever they were pets or wildlife.

Does Self-Defense Apply When Defending Property against a Robbery?

Yes, property owners and/or residents have the right to defend their property. If the would-be thieves or criminals are inside the home, most states assume that there is imminent danger to those residing within. Unlike other situations, property owners in their homes do not have a duty to retreat. Most states have “stand your ground” policies which permit property owners to protect their homes without the need to find an escape path.

State laws may differ on trespassers, or those on the property but not inside the home, although non-lethal force is encouraged in those instances.

Do I Need an Lawyer to Claim Self-Defense?

A criminal defense lawyer will know the laws in your state and exactly when self-defense is allowable. A criminal defense attorney can help mount a defense against criminal charges and develop your claim of self-defense.

Photo of page author Peter Clarke

, LegalMatch Content Manager

Last Modified: 03-07-2018 11:54 PM PST

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