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What is Self-Defense?

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What is Self-Defense?

In criminal law, self-defense refers to the legal right to use physical force to defend oneself from bodily harm.  In some cases and some jurisdictions, the term may also refer to the right to defend a third person from harm, or to defend one’s own property (such as their home).

Generally speaking, self-defense may be used when physical force has been used against the person, or is being threatened against the person.  Self-defense is a common issue in many different crimes, such as assault and battery, homicide, kidnapping, robbery, and other “crimes against the person”.

When is Self-Defense Appropriate, and How Much Force Can Be Used?

In order for self-defense to be appropriate and lawful, most states require that the following requirements be met:

  • The amount of force must be “reasonable” and proportionate to the amount of force being defended against
  • The victim must not have started the altercation or provoked the aggressor;
  • The threat of bodily harm must be immediate (self-defense is not justifiable for future threats)
  • In some jurisdictions, the victim must have no route of escape or retreat

Also, the use of deadly force or a deadly weapon is almost never justified in terms of self-defense, except when the person has first been threatened with deadly force.

What is “Perfect” and “Imperfect” Self-Defense?

In criminal law, the term “perfect self-defense” refers to instances where the victim responds with the appropriate and reasonable amount of force when compared to the aggressor.  For example, if the aggressor began attacking the victim with punches, and the victim then also responded with only punches, this might be termed “perfect self-defense” since the exact same amount of force was used.

Imperfect self-defense” usually refers to instances where the victim has responded with more force than is justifiable in the situation.  For example, if again the aggressor initiated the attack with only punches, and the victim responded by shooting a gun, this might be considered imperfect self-defense, because they responded with far too much force than was necessary.

In some cases, an imperfect self-defense may be subject to detailed analysis that is specific to the facts in that individual case.  For example, if the victim responded by shooting because they believed that the aggressor had brass knuckles on while punching them, this might be justifiable if such belief was reasonable.  Imperfect self-defense in a criminal case can often result in the defendant getting a lower sentence. 

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help With Self-Defense Laws?

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 lawyer immediately.  Your 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. 

Photo of page author Ken LaMance

, LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 09-27-2012 03:05 PM PDT

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