So one day, out of the blue, you find yourself charged with assault for putting a guy (who, by the way, totally deserved it) in the hospital, and you claim it was in self-defense. Unfortunately, unlucky comrade, the way the self-defense claim works is that the onus is on you to prove that to the court. You will need to explain what happened, why it happened that way, and why you had no other option, or you’ll find yourself spending an uncertain, possibly dangerous, definitely uncomfortable amount of time in your local neighborhood prison cell.
Force justification, put simply, is the necessity to explain and justify why you did what you did. While there are variations from state to state, the baseline of force justification is usually defined as “an individual may use the minimal level of force that he/she believes is needed to safely resolve the situation.” Although it sounds simple enough, if not somewhat disappointingly bland, you’ll need to tread cautiously, because there are many legal (as in subtle and often damning) concepts in that definition. Three particularly ambiguous but important concepts are alluded to with the words “may”, “minimal level of force” and “needed”.
The first of which is the presence of the word “may.” You are not a officer of the law (and no, despite what the media will have you think, leotard wearing vigilantes do not count), you are just a common citizen of the United States and therefore do not have the special privileges that are afforded to members of law enforcement. You “may” use force in certain situations but you are not required to. Only police officers are “required” to use force due to their legal duty to keep the peace. What this means is that although force is an option, if you find yourself in a situation in which it is one of the likely choices, you should walk away whenever possible. If not, (meaning you engaged) and ended up in court, you must show that what you did was not only necessary but just enough to stop the attack and end the situation.
This leads into the next phrase–”minimal level of force.” In this hypothetical situation, an unprovoked attacker took a swing at you, and not only were you able to dodge the punch but proceeded to beat the living tar out of the guy, then based on the law you didn’t use the “minimal level of force” no matter how well deserved the beating was. In this case, chances are you’ll be convicted of battery because your roles of attacker and defender reversed. Likewise, if you “got into words” with someone at a bar and it escalated into an actual fight, you “defending” yourself (as in physically retaliated against your attacker) may not be self-defense, even if he did swing first. This is due to the fact that the physical show of force on your part was not “needed,” since you had every chance to disengage before it exploded into a debacle. This brings us to what is “needed” for you to legally be allowed to use force.
Four things are needed for there to be a valid need for force. These are: intent, means, opportunity, and preclusion. First, the threat must show their intent that they wish to do you harm. It might be something as obvious as a verbal death threat or something as subtle as someone blocking your path of escape. Whether it’s verbal or non-verbal, this is something you must be able to explain in court. Second, a person must have the means to do you harm as well. Whether it’s their size, the weapon they are holding, or just their blatant insanity; the person threatening you must have the capability to harm you. A buck-naked man threatening to shoot you is not good enough (unfortunately, it is likely that he can still do a fair amount of damage, so be careful.) Third, the person threatening you must be able to reach you with his means. If someone is threatening you from outside your home, it is your first responsibility to call the police as the person doesn’t yet have opportunity to hurt you. However, if the person somehow gained entrance into your house before you either had a chance to call law enforcement or law enforcement has yet to arrive, that individual now has opportunity, and if he/she has also demonstrated the first two requirements, then you have a real “threat” on your hands and you are in danger.
Whether or not you were justified in your use of force often lies on the shoulders of the fourth and final component, which is your inability to avoid or get away from the threat. In the case of self-defense, you must convince the court that you exhausted other possibilities of escape and that your response was the best one. Whether you couldn’t run away, get to the phone to call the police, or calm the threat down, these are the types of options a court would expect you to try before using your fists or weapons. While you and I know that sometimes a situation calls for expediency, you must be able to articulate why the other options were just not possible for you to walk out injury-free.
That said, if there is too much wiggle room in the interpretation of the above four elements, you are going to have a difficult time in court. So it is best to consult an attorney before discussing the details of the event with the police.
Long Island Aikikai
Bay Shore, NY
I am not a lawyer and any advice I give is for informational purposes only. My opinion is based on self-study and experience. Always seek the advice of a professional before acting on something that you might hear from anyone other than those with experience in law. Please also be mindful that the law is open to interpretation, and as such, one situation’s legal ruling may not apply to another, given the variety of outside factors and influences. Always proceed with caution.