Will a Self-Defense Plea Keep You Out of Prison?

Will a Self-Defense Plea Keep You Out of Prison?

In most books and television shows, “self-defense” is sort of the ultimate “get out of jail free” card. It’s a useful device in stories, because it allows writers to send their heroes in with fists swinging without having to worry about pesky little things like legal consequences.


In reality, things are a little tougher. In order for a self-defense plea (called “Justification” in New York) to work, it must meet several important criteria.


Criteria for a Self-Defense Plea


For an assault or murder to be “justified,” you must be able to show that you were:


  • The subject of unlawful force, or that you had a reasonable fear you were about to be.
  • In fear for your life.
  • Defending someone else’s life.
  • Not the initial aggressor.
  • Used force only in proportion to the force being expended by the aggressor.


Keep in mind that there is a lot of room for interpretation under these criteria. “Reasonable” means different things to different people. So does proportionate force.


Did you have a duty to retreat?


There’s one more issue you need to be aware of when you’re using justification as your defense in a assault or murder case. In some cases, you have a duty to retreat not to stand and fight.


If you know with certainty that you can avoid violence to yourself or others simply by leaving the scene, then you are bound by a duty to retreat. You will not be able to use the justification defense if you continued to fight after a clear path opened up for retreat.


Of course, “know with a certainty” is open to interpretation and argument, too. And there are some situations where  you don’t have a duty to retreat.


The first scenario is when you had reason to believe the person you were assaulting was committing “robbery, kidnapping, forcible rape, or a forcible criminal sexual act.” The second is when you’ve got an intruder in your home and you are defending your lives or the lives of your family members.


You can still be arrested.


If a police officer catches you in the middle of an assault, he or she has the leeway to decide to let you go if they believe your actions were justified. But more often, that cop will just make the arrest, because they don’t have any duty to figure out whether you have a solid justification defense.


In addition, you have to be careful, because if you violated a different law while defending yourself or someone else, like a New York weapons law, then you could still find yourself facing charges.


Don’t be complacent. Your best bet is to treat a justified assault or homicide arrest exactly as you’d treat any other arrest. Reach out to a criminal lawyer who you trust and who will fight for you. That’s the best way to get the outcome you’re hoping to achieve.


See also:


Understanding New York’s Murder Statute


Is DNA Evidence Always Foolproof?


5 Things Police Shows Get Wrong