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Self-Defense Law | LegalMatch Law Library

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What is Self-Defense?

Self-defense is a broad term used to describe a person’s use of force including deadly force to protect themselves from an active threat or attack. self-defense can also describe the use of force to protect one’s property from an ongoing robbery or burglary.

Defense of others also falls under self-defense principles if the person using such force is doing so to protect or aid a third party from an active attack.

In order for the defense to become applicable in criminal law, the defendant must be charged with a crime of assault, battery or murder and then raise self-defense as a justification for their actions. self-defense can also apply in civil lawsuits when a defendant is being sued for assault, battery or wrongful death.

When is Self-Defense Legally Justified?

Each state recognizes some form of self-defense and defense of others. Variations occur when it comes to location of the crime, such as a the defendant’s home versus the street, and whether the defendant must take certain precautions before using force to defend themselves.

A legal self-defense applies when the following factors are met:

  • The defendant was physically attacked or witnessed a third-party being attacked when they used force. Words are not enough to respond with physical force.
  • The defendant did not start the physical altercation. If you start the fight, it is highly unlikely you can use self-defense.
  • The defendant had a true and reasonable belief that self-defense was necessary to stop or prevent the attack from continuing.
  • The defendant did not use excessive force; meaning the force used was proportionate to the attack and sufficient to stop it or avoid further injury.

Do I Have a Duty to Retreat Before Using Self-Defense?

Some states require the defendant to retreat or run away from the attacker before using deadly force to stop the attack. In states that require a duty to retreat, some do not require such a duty if the attack occurs inside the defendant’s home by an outside assailant.

However, a duty to retreat only applies if a safe escape exists to the defendant and they knew or should have known of its existence at the time of the attack.

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What is a “Stand Your Ground” Law?

Standing one’s ground is the opposite of the duty to retreat. In some states, a defendant need not retreat before using force including deadly force; rather they may stand their ground and defend themselves with the same force applied by their attacker. In such states, the defendant may even stand their ground in a public place.

Can I Use Self-Defense Against Pets Owned by Someone Else?

Yes. You can use self-defense against an attack by some else’s dog for example. You can also use self-defense against wild animals as long as all applicable steps are followed.

But self-defense against another person’s pet will have similar steps to self-defense against another person. The animal must be the instigator and that you did not use overly lethal force. If the animal was simply growling, then taking a deadly weapon and hitting it with intent to kill would not be considered self-defense.

If you saw the animal attacking another person, then you have every right to step in for the defense of the other person. If you followed the steps for self-defense outlined above, then the pet owner will be limited in suing you for injuring or killing their pet.

Are there any Exceptions or Requirements Before Using Self-Defense?

Yes. The following circumstances may prevent a defendant from using a legal self-defense:

  • Use of excessive or unreasonable force. Escalating the fight or using a weapon against an unarmed attacker may be excessive depending on the size and use of force by the attacker. For example, an unarmed burglar enters your home and you pull a gun on them. They begin to run away when you shoot them in the back. This action is not likely to be self-defense. 
  • Failing to retreat when required to do so. 
  • Starting the fight. 
  • Using force after the attack has ended. For example, you are assaulted and afterwards the attacker flees. If you chase them down and attack them, then it is not self-defense.

Do I Need a Lawyer to Assert Self-Defense?

Hiring a criminal defense lawyer is highly recommended. If you have been charged with a crime in which you believe was only committed in self-defense, a local criminal defense attorney can help you understand your rights, the applicable law in your state and prepare the evidence needed to prove your claim.

Photo of page author Lauren Wallace

, LegalMatch Legal Writer and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 06-24-2018 06:17 PM PDT

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