What Constitutes Self-Defense?

One of the universally accepted principles in criminal cases in the United States is that an individual has the right to protect himself or herself from physical harm when the circumstances necessitate it, even when such an action would constitute a crime in a normal situation. This just happened in a case where an adult was sexually attacking a child and another adult shot that child attacker and killed him. Most likely the child defender will not be charged and in fact, could be rewarded for his proper and just actions.

The U.S. criminal justice system allows every defendant the right to claim self-defense when arrested for or charged with a violent crime. However, the legal rules with regard to self-defense differ from one jurisdiction to another.

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What Constitutes Self-defense?

The law defines self-defense as the right of an individual to prevent suffering of violence or physical force through the application of an adequate degree of counteracting violence or force. This definition of self-defense may appear simple on its face. However, it does raise a number of questions when it is applied to real life situations. For example:

  • What is the “adequate degree of violence or force” that may be applied in one’s own defense?
  • What happens if the force goes beyond the intended level?
  • What happens if the attack was provoked by the intended victim only?
  • Is the victim expected by law to retreat from a violent situation, if possible?
  • What will happen in a situation where the victim misperceives a threat where none exists?
  • What happens if the victim’s perception is objectively unreasonable but subjectively valid?

All these questions to factor make self-defense cases more complex than what it may appear at the outset. To handle all such issues, states have put in place several laws to determine which situations self-defense may be permitted and in what quantum in terms of force applied.

How serious is the threat?

The use of force in self-defense, as a general rule, is justified only when it is applied in response to an imminent and immediate threat. The threat may even be merely verbal, but it must be such that it places the targeted victim in an immediate fear or threat of physical harm.

However, a mere use of offensive language, unaccompanied by a threat of imminent physical harm, will not justify the application of force in self-defense. The fear of harm must be reasonable in a given situation. The courts, in such cases, will see whether another reasonable person in the same situation would have reacted in a similar way.

When the Threat Ceases to Exist

It is important to understand that once the threat ceases to exist, any use of force in self-defense will usually lose justification. For instance, if a victim has been assaulted by an aggressor, but thereafter the assault ends and there is no further perceived or real threat to the victim or anyone else.

In such a situation, if the victim responds with a use of force, it will be treated as a retaliatory action, and not an act of self-defense.