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Posted on April 23, 2019 in Assault

When Does Defending Yourself Become Assault?

Generally, every individual has the right to self-defense in the face of an imminent threat of physical harm from another person. Every state has different self-defense laws, and it is essential for everyone to know their states’ laws when it comes to appropriate self-defense, types of self-defense, and what kind of defense is appropriate in a given situation.

Understanding Self-defense

Self-defense can potentially become assault under certain circumstances. For example, some states still uphold “duty to retreat” laws that require individuals to try to avoid an imminent threat by means of escaping before taking self-defensive action. Other states uphold “stand your ground” laws that allow potential victims to use force, even lethal force if necessary, to defend against a threat. However, if an individual engaged in self-defense takes things too far or neglects state laws, the defender may actually face criminal penalties.

What Is Duty to Retreat?

Only a few states still uphold these types of laws as they essentially limit a person’s ability to defend him- or herself from an attack. Under a duty to retreat law, a defender must take evasive action from an imminent threat before he or she may engage in any retaliatory actions. For example, if an armed robber attempts to mug someone, the victim may have a duty to retreat before he or she may engage in self-defense. The victim may only retaliate once there is no means of escape or way to avoid the threat.

Many decry duty to retreat laws as they inherently limit potential victims’ rights and ability to defend themselves from imminent harm. In contrast to these laws, most states uphold “stand your ground” laws that do not require potential victims to retreat at all, instead allowing them to use reasonable force to defend themselves with no obligation to retreat.

Stand Your Ground

If your state upholds a Stand Your Ground law, you have the right to defend yourself from imminent danger using reasonable means. Generally, states that uphold these laws require a defender to only use as much force as required to quell the threat and prevent personal harm. Consider the following examples.

  • A mugger armed with a knife attempts to rob a person who happens to hold a concealed carry permit and a loaded firearm. The defender sees the threat and produces his firearm, holding the mugger at gunpoint and calling the police. This would likely be a justifiable use of force since the defender did nothing more than brandishing his firearm in self-defense.
  • A mugger armed with a knife threatens a person with a concealed carry permit and the would-be victim produces his firearm and shoots the attacker in the face, killing the attacker. Since the victim could have likely quelled the threat without firing, this would likely be an unjustified use of force and the defender would likely face criminal charges.
  • A mugger armed with a firearm threatens a concealed carry holder, unaware the potential victim is armed. The defender produces his firearm and the attacker raises his own in response, but the defender is quicker and shoots and kills the attacker. In this situation, the defender faced an imminent threat of deadly physical harm, justifying the use of deadly force in self-defense.

Ultimately, under a Stand Your Ground law, a defender should only use as much force as the attacker presents. Using excessive force could easily lead to assault charges or even murder charges.

Castle Doctrines

Many states uphold Castle Doctrines, or laws that allow property owners to defend their homes and businesses from intruders that present a visible, obvious threat of imminent danger. Most states that uphold Castle Doctrines do not uphold a duty of retreat for property owners. However, property owners may only use force in self-defense on their own properties. If a homeowner shoots and kills an armed intruder, this would likely constitute a valid use of deadly force under a Castle Doctrine. If the homeowner chased off the attacker out of the house and into the street, the Castle Doctrine no longer applies once the homeowner leaves his or her property.