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Self-Defense: a Defense to Crimes in California

When someone is making a threat to your safety or your family's safety, you may fight back to protect yourself. Later on, you may be shocked to learn that you are facing criminal charges for simply defending yourself. Under California law, “self-defense” is a defense to a number of criminal charges and offenses. If you are facing criminal charges for assault or domestic violence, contact Gorelick Law Offices for a free consultation to talk about your self-defense rights.

When is Self-Defense a Legal Defense?

Assault and batterydomestic violence, and homicide are crimes in California. However, in some cases, someone may not be convicted of the crime even if they admit to hitting, assaulting, or even killing another person. Self-defense is an affirmative defense to certain criminal charges. As long as the individual was acting reasonably under the circumstances.

If the defendant claims self-defense, it is the job of the prosecutor to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in lawful self-defense or defense of another.

Self-defense can be a defense to certain crimes, including:

  • Assault,
  • Battery,
  • Domestic Violence
  • Assault with a deadly weapon, and
  • Murder.

A defendant is not guilty of those crimes if he or she used force against the other person in self-defense. Self-defense requires:

  1. The defendant reasonably believed that he or she was in “imminent danger of suffering bodily injury;”
  2. The defendant reasonably believed that the immediate use of force was necessary to defend against that danger; and
  3. The defendant used no more force than was reasonably necessary to defend against that danger.

Reasonable Belief of Danger

Reasonableness is a question for the jury. It is up to the jury to decide, considering all the circumstances, whether the defendant's actions were reasonable. This includes how things appeared to the defendant at the time, and not in hindsight. Even if there is no actual danger, defense may be reasonable based on what a reasonable person in a similar situation with similar knowledge would have believed.

Imminent Danger

The danger has to be imminent or present. Belief in future harm is not enough to justify self-defense actions. The defendant has to believe there is an immediate risk of danger. However, past harm or threats can be considered in determining if the defendant's actions were reasonable.

No More Force Than Reasonable

The defendant is limited in the amount of force he or she can use in self-defense. The defendant can only use the amount of force that a reasonable person would believe is necessary for the same situation. 

For example, if a bar patron started kicking a customer in the shins, the customer may be justified in kicking back or punching the bar patron. However, the customer would not be justified in pulling out a knife and stabbing the bar patron. Use of a deadly weapon is not a reasonable amount of force in that example.

Self-Defense from Unlawful Touching

Self-defense is not limited to a threat of serious bodily harm. The slightest touching can be unlawful if it is done in an angry or offensive manner. For example, touching someone's buttocks through their clothing is unlawful touching even if it does not cause pain or injury.

Stand Your Ground

In California, there is no requirement that a defendant has to retreat from danger. He or she is entitled to stand his or her ground in the face of a threat. Even if the defendant could have run away, the defendant can defend himself or herself and use reasonable force

Defense in Your Own Home -- “Castle Doctrine”

The so-called “Castle Doctrine” involves self-defense while inside your home or business. Under California Penal Code 1998.5, when someone unlawfully and forcibly enters someone's residence, there is a presumption that any person using force within his or her residence has a reasonable fear of peril or great bodily injury. The resident has no duty to retreat from his or her own residence when facing a reasonable threat.

Defense of Others

Defense of others is also a defense, similar to self-defense. If the defendant reasonably believes someone else was in imminent danger of suffering bodily injury and uses reasonable force to defend against that danger, the defendant may have a justifiable defense.

Defense of others often involves family members, friends, or co-workers; however, it could include anybody as long as the defendant's actions were reasonable under the circumstances.

Self-Defense in Domestic Violence Cases

In certain domestic violence cases, the jury can consider the defendant's mental state caused by “battered women's syndrome.” Battered women's syndrome or intimate partner battering is a type of mental disorder that occurs in some victims of domestic violence over time. The jury can consider the defendant's actions in deciding whether the defendant acted reasonably to defend himself or herself against an immediate threat of injury or death.

Imperfect Self-Defense

In murder cases, an “imperfect self-defense,” is when the defendant had an honest but unreasonable belief that he or she needed to use deadly self-defense. The unreasonable but honest used of deadly force is not a defense to murder. However, if the jury finds the defendant had an imperfect self-defense, the charges can be reduced from murder to voluntary manslaughter.

Justifiable Homicide

Someone who kills another using self-defense or defense of another is not guilty of murder or manslaughter if their actions were justified. Justifiable homicide occurs when:

  1. The defendant reasonably believes that he or she is in immediate danger of being killed or suffering great bodily injury, rape, maiming, or robbery;
  2. The defendant reasonably believed the immediate use of deadly force was necessary to defend himself or herself against that danger; and
  3. The defendant used no more force than was necessary under the circumstances.

Self-Defense to Criminal Charges in the East Bay

Lynn Gorelick has more than 30 years of criminal defense experience defending her clients facing assault, manslaughter, and domestic violence charges in the East Bay. Self-defense or defense of others can mean your criminal charges will be reduced or dropped entirely. If you are facing criminal charges in Alameda County and want to know your options, contact Gorelick Law Offices today.

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