In most cases, it is illegal to use force against others, but one of the strongest criminal defenses to these charges is arguing that you were acting in self-defense. California is known as a “stand your ground” state, which means you have the right to use force to defend yourself or another person without first attempting to escape. This affirmative defense involves confessing to the act but excusing your behavior based on the specific circumstances. You can even use force to protect your property, though you may only use deadly force if you are protecting your home from invaders, an exception known as the Castle Doctrine.
California Self-Defense Laws
Stand-your-ground laws allow you to argue self-defense for all types of violent crimes charges, but the defense is particularly useful in cases involving homicide, attempted murder, assault, battery, road rage, or domestic violence. The basis of the defense is that you had a reasonable fear that you were in imminent danger of being killed or suffering great bodily injury, and you had to use the minimum required physical force to prevent that danger. Self-defense is considered a total defense under the law as it completely excuses you from the charges if a criminal jury agrees you were acting within your rights.
You can’t just claim self-defense because you harmed someone. Your lawyer must be able to show that you:
- Reasonably believed you were in imminent danger of suffering bodily harm
- Thought immediate force was necessary to stop that danger
- Used reasonable force to defend yourself
If your criminal defense attorney can show that you met all three requirements, there is a good chance you can avoid facing criminal charges. If the District Attorney does choose to fight the charges, it will be up to the prosecutor to prove that you did not meet the requirements set by California state’s self-defense laws, which can be particularly difficult if you have any witnesses supporting your claims.
Does California Have Stand Your Ground Laws?
While all states have some type of self-defense laws, some require you to attempt to retreat from the danger before resorting to the use of force. California is a stand-your-ground state, which means that if you find yourself in danger of imminent harm, you have no duty to retreat from the situation to defend against that danger.
In other words, if someone threatened you with a weapon and you injured them in an attempt to stop their threat, you can still claim self-defense even if you could have easily run away from the scene.
Coming to the Defense of Others
While most people know that you can defend yourself against violent crimes charges by claiming you acted in self-defense, fewer people know that the same legal precedent applies to protecting others. So if you have a reasonable belief that someone is being sexually assaulted, beaten, robbed, or threatened, California state law says that you can step in to protect them if necessary.
You cannot use force to protect someone else’s property like you can to protect your own property, but if someone is being robbed, you can act because this type of theft puts the individual themselves in at risk of harm.
Claiming Self-Defense in a Fight
You can even use self-defense if you were the initial aggressor in a fight, as long as you made a good-faith effort to disengage the conflict and made that clear to the person you were fighting against. If they fail to break off the fight or attempt to use deadly force in response to your use of non-deadly force, you can defend your actions by arguing that you used self-defense.
Of course, by arguing that you used self-defense, you cannot claim that you were participating in mutual combat. While mutual combat is technically illegal in California, prosecutors frequently choose not to file charges in these cases as long as both parties agree the aggression was mutual, and neither party was injured significantly more than the other.
Deadly Force Can Only be Used Against a Deadly Threat
The general rule of self-defense involving deadly force is that you cannot use deadly force for a non-deadly threat. Unless someone is armed with a deadly weapon or is using extreme physical violence, it can be hard to prove self-defense if you react with deadly force.
For example, if someone armed with a weapon was using extreme physical violence, you could likely argue that you used necessary force if you killed or nearly killed the attacker. If the attacker was only using their fists to punch at you though, deadly force would likely be considered excessive. The important thing in these circumstances is that a reasonable person would probably feel that deadly force was necessary to put an end to an imminent threat of harm.
If you truly believed that you were justified in using deadly force even when a reasonable person would not feel that way, you can use the concept of imperfect self-defense in a murder case. This defense involves arguing that:
- you genuinely believed you were facing a deadly threat from the other party
- you thought you could only defend yourself by resorting to using deadly force
- a reasonable person would not believe the threat was deadly or that deadly force was required to stop the danger
Showing that Your Force Was Reasonable
In clear-cut cases of self-defense, you will typically not face charges. You are particularly likely to avoid charges if you have witnesses that back up your story and you used a minimal amount of force to stop the threat.
On the other hand, if you broke multiple bones in someone’s arm because they pushed your girlfriend, self-defense would be a poor defense because you used excessive force.
While it’s not always possible to do in the heat of the moment, if you want to ensure you can claim you acted in self-defense, make sure there is an actual threat before acting, and never cause someone more injuries than necessary to stop the threat.
Contact a Lawyer Before Mounting Your Defense
Because both a “reasonable fear of imminent harm” and “excessive force” can be so subjective, it is best to speak with your criminal lawyer before answering any police questions. Failing to do so could result in your accidentally saying something that could negate your use of this defense under the law. For example, if you say that you didn’t think the attacker seemed particularly intimidating, but you didn’t want the person they were threatening to be scared, this could be used as proof that you didn’t believe the other person was actually in imminent danger. Similarly, if you say you wanted to “teach” someone a lesson for what they did, this could be considered evidence that you knowingly used more force than necessary to defend yourself.
If you were arrested after acting in self-defense or defense of another person, or if you have any questions about self-defense in California, please contact Peter M. Liss as soon as possible. You can schedule a free consultation by calling (760) 643-4050 or (858) 486-3024 to discuss your case.