Self-defense is a legal term which allows a person to use reasonable force to protect him or a third person from personal injury inflicted by another so long as the defender has reason to believe that he or a third person is in serious danger.

The term may also refer to the right to defend one’s own property (such as their home). It allows a person to protect himself from harm under appropriate circumstances. It’s a common defense for people accused of assault, battery, or homicide.

When Can I Use Self-Defense?

The laws on self-defense vary by state. Generally speaking, self-defense can only be used in response to an immediate threat. For example, if a person with a knife threatens to stab you if you don’t give him all your money, and you run away unscathed, you cannot claim self-defense if you hunt down the perpetrator 24 hours later and punch him.

Additionally, the threat that warrants self-defense can be verbal or physical, so long as a reasonable person in the same situation would perceive the aggressor would harm him. For instance, a reasonable person would not perceive that a three-year-old threatening to hit you until you gave him chocolate would cause you physical harm, but a grown man threatening to punch you until you gave him your wallet could reasonably cause justified fear.

Finally, the threat of harm must be active at the time you defend yourself. If the threat has ended and there is no more threat of violence (and thus the danger has ended), the justification for self-defense dwindles.

How Much Violence Can I Inflict on an Aggressor Using Self-Defense?

Self-defense can only warrant a proportional response. In that regard, the use of force inflicted during self-defense must match the level of the threat by the aggressor.

If an aggressor is threatening to use deadly force against you, you are permitted to use deadly force in defending yourself in order to counteract the threat. You may not, however, use deadly force to defend yourself if the threat is minor.

Duty to Retreat vs. Stand Your Ground Laws

As the states differ on their individual laws with regard to self-defense, some are “duty to retreat” states whereas others follow “stand your ground” laws.

The duty to retreat requires people to first attempt to avoid violence (i.e. retreat) before they use force in order to validly claim self-defense. In other words, a person must try to escape the potentially dangerous situation before using force to protect oneself.

Stand your ground laws remove the duty to remove yourself from the violence and permits the victim to use force without first attempting to flee from the situation. States are split as to whether a victim can stand his ground by using lethal force.

Can I Use Self-Defense to Protect My Home?

Yes. Pursuant to the “Castle Doctrine,” a person can defend his home against intruders using lethal force. The idea is that a home is a person’s “castle,” and he can therefore do whatever he can to defend it against intruders.

Should I Speak with an Attorney?

Self-defense laws can often be complicated and difficult to understand. In a self-defense case, there are two or more people using force against each other. This can also make it more difficult to tell who is at fault. If you need assistance with any claims involving self-defense, you may wish to speak with a qualified criminal lawyer immediately. An attorney will be able to help you make sense of the related laws in your case and can represent you in court during criminal proceedings.