Russell Hebets April 8, 2019

Regularly we talk to people charged with crimes of violence, and some of them wonder whether they can claim self-defense to avoid conviction. Perhaps the oldest and most intuitive legal concept there is, self-defense is the right of a person to exercise such force as would normally be criminal to prevent harm to his or her body by someone else. While the limits of that right vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and according to the details of each case, we should all know the basic legal elements underlying self-defense, so that, in the unlikely event of an attack, we have a better chance of protecting ourselves without breaking the law.

How Does It Work In Practice?

First of all, in most cases a claim of self-defense requires that there be an imminent threat to avert. If for example you fall behind on rent, and your landlord, abrasive hypothetical person that he is, tells you to have it by next week or he’s going to beat it out of you, you cannot rely on self-defense in court after you hit him over the head with the coffee mug you were holding when you answered the door. Only if he did in fact come back the next week to fulfill his threat would you have grounds for that argument. Also, the right of self-defense lasts only as long as the assault. If your landlord comes to your door to fight you but, losing his nerve at the sight of your trusty mug, turns and runs back the way he came, you cannot lawfully chase him down and engage in violence.

From there things get murkier. To successfully argue self-defense you must also establish that your fear of harm was reasonable, i.e., that a reasonable person under the same circumstances would expect harm. Let’s suppose that your friend comes over to console you after your landlord makes his threat about next week. You’re sitting at the kitchen table with your head in your hands; you don’t hear your friend come in. Your friend approaches you without saying a word and lays a hand on your shoulder. Startled, you spring up and punch your friend in the face! Oh, no! Curse your catlike reflexes! It’s not even noon yet, and the day has already gone to hell! But wait: can you win in court on a claim of self-defense if you’re charged with assaulting your friend? That will depend, in part, on whether a reasonable person would respond to an unexpected touch on the shoulder the way you did following a stressful confrontation. We suspect that, under those circumstances, such a claim would not succeed.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that the doctrine of self-defense does not excuse violence inflicted without restraint. It is intended to give someone recourse against an aggressor only in proportion to and only at the time of the aggression. So the next time your landlord starts giving you a hard time, remember this blog, and do the smart thing—avoid a physical confrontation if at all possible.