Self-Defense

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Self-Defense

The protection of one's person or property against some injury attempted by another.

Self-defense is a defense to certain criminal charges as well as to some civil claims. Under both Criminal Law and Tort Law, self-defense is commonly asserted in cases of Homicide, Assault and Battery, and other crimes involving the attempted use of violence against an individual. Statutory and case law governing self-defense is generally the same in tort and criminal law.

A person claiming self-defense must prove at trial that the self-defense was justified. Generally a person may use reasonable force when it appears reasonably necessary to prevent an impending injury. A person using force in self-defense should use only so much force as is required to repel the attack. Nondeadly force can be used to repel either a nondeadly attack or a deadly attack. Deadly Force may be used to fend off an attacker who is using deadly force but may not be used to repel an attacker who is not using deadly force.

In some cases, before using force that is likely to cause death or serious bodily harm to the aggressor, a person who is under attack should attempt to retreat or escape, but only if an exit is reasonably possible. Courts have held, however, that a person is not required to flee from his own home, the fenced ground surrounding the home, his place of business, or his automobile.

A person who is the initial aggressor in a physical encounter may be able to claim self-defense if the tables turn in the course of the fight. Generally a person who was the aggressor may use nondeadly force if the victim resumes fighting after the original fight ended. If the original aggressor attacked with nondeadly force and was met with deadly force in return, the aggressor may respond with deadly force.

Courts and tribunals have historically accepted self-defense as a defense to a legal action. As a matter of public policy, the physical force or violence associated with self-defense is considered an acceptable response to aggression.

Self-Defense or Unjustified Shooting?

On December 22, 1984, at approximately 1:00 p.m., Troy Canty, Darryl Cabey, James Ramseur, and Barry Allen boarded an express subway train in the Bronx borough of New York City. The young black men sat in the rear section of their car. A short time later, Bernhard Goetz boarded the same car and took a seat near the youths. Goetz, a white computer technician, had been mugged some two years earlier.

Canty and Allen approached Goetz, and Canty said, "Give me five dollars." Goetz responded by standing up and firing at the youths with a handgun. Goetz fired four shots before pausing. He then walked up to Cabey and reportedly said, "You seem to be all right, here's another," whereupon he fired his fifth and final bullet into Cabey's spinal cord. Goetz had shot two of the youths in the back. Ramseur and Cabey each had a screwdriver, which they said they used to break into coin boxes and video machines.

Goetz fled the scene and traveled north to New Hampshire. On December 31, 1984, he turned himself in to police in Concord, New Hampshire. Goetz was returned to New York where he was indicted on a charge of criminal possession of a weapon. The state fought for a second Grand Jury, and Goetz was eventually indicted a second time on charges of attempted murder, assault, criminal possession of a weapon, and reckless endangerment. At trial Goetz argued that he had acted in self-defense, and a jury convicted him only of illegal gun possession. Ultimately Goetz was sentenced to one year in jail and fined $5,000.

Goetz's shooting of Darryl Cabey left Cabey with brain damage and paralyzed from the chest down. Cabey sued Goetz, and in April 1996, a Bronx jury found Goetz liable for Cabey's injuries and awarded Cabey $43 million.

Further readings

Fletcher, George P. 1988. A Crime of Self-Defense: Bernhard Goetz and the Law on Trial. New York: Free Press.

Roehrenbeck, Carol A. 1989. People vs Goetz: The Summations and the Charges to the Jury. Buffalo, N.Y.: W.S. Hein.

The same values that underpin self-defense support the defense of property. Generally a person has greater latitude in using physical force in the defense of her dwelling than in the defense of other property. In most jurisdictions deadly force is justified if a person unlawfully enters onto property and the property owner reasonably believes that the trespasser is about to commit a felony or do harm to a person on the premises. Deadly force may also be justified to prevent a Burglary if the property owner reasonably believes the burglar intends to kill or seriously injure a person on the premises. However, a person may not, for example, rig a door handle so that any person who enters the dwelling is automatically shot by a gun. (Katko v. Briney, 183 N.W.2d 657 [Iowa 1971]).

Use of deadly force is never justified to protect Personal Property other than a dwelling. For example, a person would not be justified in shooting a person who is taking an automobile, no matter how expensive. Reasonable nondeadly force may be used to protect such personal property.

A person may use force to defend a third person from attack. If the defender is mistaken, however, and the third party does not need assistance, most jurisdictions hold that the defender may be held liable in civil court for injuries inflicted on the supposed attacker. In criminal cases a defendant would be relieved of liability if she proved she had made a reasonable mistake.

A defendant who successfully invokes self-defense may be found not guilty or not liable. If the defendant's self-defense was imperfect, the self-defense may only reduce the defendant's liability. Imperfect self-defense is self-defense that was arguably necessary but somehow unreasonable. For example, if a person had a Good Faith belief that deadly force was necessary to repel an attack, but that belief was unreasonable, the defendant would have a claim of imperfect self-defense. In some jurisdictions, the successful invocation of such a defense reduces a murder charge to Manslaughter. Most jurisdictions do not recognize imperfect self-defense.

Further readings

Ayyildiz, Elisabeth. 1995. "When Battered Woman's Syndrome Does Not Go Far Enough: The Battered Woman as Vigilante." American University Journal of Gender and the Law 4 (fall).

"Criminal Law." 1994. SMH Bar Review.

Klansky, Nadine. 1988. "Bernhard Goetz, a 'Reasonable Man': A Look at New York's Justification Defense." Brooklyn Law Review 53 (winter).

Lee, Cynthia Kwei Yung. 1996. "Race and Self-Defense: Toward a Normative Conception of Reasonableness." Minnesota Law Review (December).

"Torts." 1994 SMH Bar Review.

self-defense

n. the use of reasonable force to protect oneself or members of the family from bodily harm from the attack of an aggressor, if the defender has reason to believe he/she/they is/are in danger. Self-defense is a common defense by a person accused of assault, battery, or homicide. The force used in self-defense may be sufficient for protection from apparent harm (not just an empty verbal threat) or to halt any danger from attack, but cannot be an excuse to continue the attack or use excessive force. Examples: an unarmed man punches Allen Alibi, who hits the attacker with a baseball bat. That is legitimate self-defense, but Alibi cannot chase after the attacker and shoot him or beat him senseless. If the attacker has a gun or a butcher knife and is verbally threatening, Alibi is probably warranted in shooting him. Basically, appropriate self-defense is judged on all the circumstances. Reasonable force can also be used to protect property from theft or destruction. Self-defense cannot include killing or great bodily harm to defend property, unless personal danger is also involved, as is the case in most burglaries, muggings or vandalism. (See: defense, assault, homicide)

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