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.