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Being involved in a violent encounter can be terrifying and traumatic. And in some situations, you may need to defend yourself using physical force. Understanding the legal rules around self defense and justification can be confusing. This article provides an overview of key issues to be aware of.
The basic legal principle is that you are allowed to use reasonable force to protect yourself or others from harm. As one Redditor explains:
Self defense means using the minimum amount of force necessary to prevent or stop an attack against you. The key issues are: necessity (you’re preventing harm to yourself) and proportionality (you don’t use more force than needed to stop the attack).
So if someone punches you, you can punch back. If they have a deadly weapon, you may be able to use a weapon to defend yourself. But you can’t use excessive force when defending yourself. That could turn you from a victim into an offender.
There are a few key requirements that generally must be met for a self defense justification:
So in practice, successfully claiming self defense relies heavily on the specific details of each violent encounter.
The same basic rules apply if you are defending yourself or defending another person from harm. As FindLaw notes:
The degree of force used in defense must still pass the tests of necessity and reasonableness. In essence, a person acting in defense of another steps into the shoes of the person defended.
So if your friend is being attacked, you have the same right to use reasonable force to protect them from harm. But you still can’t use excessive or disproportionate force when defending others.
In most states, you lose the right to claim self defense if you are the initial aggressor or provoke the fight. As criminal defense attorney David White explains:
If you start a fight, you typically lose the right to claim self-defense for actions taken in the fight. However, if you start a non-deadly fight and the other person escalates to deadly force, you may regain the right of self defense.
So if you throw the first punch in a fist fight, you can’t then claim self defense if the other person fights back. But if they suddenly pull a knife, your right of self defense may be restored.
All states place greater limits on when deadly force can be used in self defense. Generally, deadly force is only justified if you are facing the imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm.
Brandishing or threatening deadly force is also strictly limited. As Avvo lawyer Ken Vercammen explains:
The threat to kill or shooting must be in self defense. You cannot leave the scene, return armed, and shoot…Self Defense is an affirmative defense that must be proven by the defendant by a preponderance of the evidence.
So claiming self defense for killing another person faces significant legal hurdles compared to using non-deadly defensive force.
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