Self Defense Law

Disclaimer: This information regarding Self Defense Law is provided for discussion purposes only. It is not intended, nor shall it be construed, as legal advice. If necessary, consult a qualified attorney. This information is generally applicable to United States law. Before you apply your self-defense knowledge, get to know the law in your state.

Misconceptions Regarding Self Defense Law

There is a widespread misconception concerning the interpretation of self defense. There are several reasons for this, mainly the fact that self defense laws vary from one state to another. Other factors come into play, but I believe the biggest misconception comes from the fact that we typically approach the issue from the wrong direction. Most students in my classes ask, "What does it mean to me, as a martial artist?" Well, that's the wrong question, because self-defense can mean anything you want it to mean.

The correct question should be, "What does self defense law mean to a jury of my peers?"

Technically, you should be more concerned with the meaning of the term "Defense of Self-defense". Why? Because if you ever have to use your skills for self defense, you will also have to "Defend your actions in a court of Law!" Guaranteed!

This is not meant to discourage you from learning, or using self-defense, if need be. In fact, a well-trained martial artist is less likely to find himself (or herself) standing before a judge in a courtroom than someone who is untrained. But before I explain that, let's make sure we really understand what self defense law is all about.

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"What does the term 'Defense of Self-defense' mean?"

Self-defense law

Imagine this courtroom scene...

Judge: "How does the defendant plead?"
Your attorney replies, "Not guilty, Your Honor."
The Judge asks, "What's his defense for this crime?"
Your attorney replies, "He's claiming self-defense, Your Honor."

Get the picture?

That's a "Defense of Self-defense", according to self defense law.

Let me make this as clear as possible...

If you injure or kill someone, no matter what the circumstances, you WILL be arrested and charged with a crime. The police will not make the assumption that you acted in self-defense. The police are not responsible for making that decision. They will let the courts sort that out.

Let me repeat...

The police do not make judgments of right or wrong. That is for the courts to decide.

So Be Aware! If you use your skills, and harm someone in the process, no matter what the reason or circumstance, you must be prepared to defend yourself a second time, in a court of law. Period! That is the nature of self defense law.

"Defense of Self-defense". Got it?

"So, if I ever have to use self-defense, how do I defend myself against civil and/or criminal charges?"

Law Let's start with the legal definition of 'Defense of Self-defense'.

In the United States legal system, under self defense law, the statutes for the defense of self-defense allows a person charged with injury to another to excuse or justify his actions as reasonable force used in their own defense, or the defense of others.

While the statutes defining the legitimate use of force in defense of a person vary from state to state, the general rule makes a clear and important distinction between the use of physical force and deadly physical force. A person may use physical force to prevent imminent physical injury. However, a person may not use deadly physical force unless that person is in reasonable fear of serious physical injury or death.

Most statutes regarding self defense law also include a duty to retreat clause, wherein deadly physical force may only be used if the person acting in self defense is unable to safely retreat. We will discuss this duty to retreat in more detail later. Just remember that a person is generally not obligated to retreat if in one's own home. For example: a person doesn't have to retreat from the living room to the kitchen, then to the bedroom, then to the bathroom, in what has come to be called the "castle exception" (derived from the expression "A man's home is his castle").

Defense of Others

The rules are the same under self defense law when force is used to protect another person from danger. Generally, the defendant must have a reasonable belief that the third party is in a position where he or she would have the right of self defense. For example, a person who unknowingly chances upon two actors practicing a fight would be able to defend (in court) his restraint of the one that appeared to be the aggressor. Most courts have ruled that such a defense cannot be used to protect friends or family members who have engaged in an illegal fight (see "limits of self-defense", below). Likewise, one cannot use this defense if his actions were to aid a criminal.

"When is the use of force (self-defense) justified?"

Remember, there is a clear distinction in self defense law between force and deadly force (injury, versus death)...

The use of force is justified when a person reasonably believes that it is necessary for the defense of oneself or another against the immediate use of unlawful force. However, a person must use no more force than appears reasonably necessary in the circumstances. [More about reasonable force later.]

A man may repel force by force in defense of his person, property or habitation, against unlawful force, that is, any one who manifests, intends, attempts, or endeavors, by violence or surprise, to commit a forcible felony, such as murder, rape, robbery, arson, burglary and the like. In these cases he is not required to retreat, but he may resist and even pursue his adversary, until he has secured himself from all danger.

In other words, it is perfectly legal to chase an intruder from your home, and if he turns to engage you, you still have the right to a defense of self-defense. However, your purpose for pursuit may only be to apprehend the suspect until authorities arrive (citizen's arrest), or to ensure the invader is far enough away to prevent further harm to you, your family or property. If you do in fact capture the suspect, you may only use force enough to subdue him, and once subdued, no more force is allowed.

Deadly force, that is, force likely to cause death or great bodily harm, is justified under self defense law only if a person reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm to themselves or others. In this case, if you pursue an adversary, then kill him, you can be assured your defense of self-defense will fail. You will go to prison for manslaughter, at the minimum, and possibly even murder.

"Do I have to be hit first (or a hit attempted) before I can take action to defend myself?"

No! Absolutely not!

Your defense of self-defense may include "preemptive" action (force) on your part.

Lawful "preemptive" self defense is simply the act of landing the first-blow in a situation that has reached a point of no hope for deescalation or escape.

"An attempt to strike another, when sufficiently near
so that there is danger, the person assailed may strike first,
and is not required to wait until he has been struck."

– 16th Century English Self Defense Law -

Intimidation is a crime. What is intimidation? If someone verbally threatens you, even if they have not yet touched you, they have committed the crime of intimidation, which is considered in most states as unlawful force or coercion. If someone threatens you by shouting, "I'm going to kill you!", they have already committed a crime. Intimidation. You should, in fact you must, assume that they mean what they say and immediately take whatever action you feel is appropriate under the circumstances! Do not wait until they actually attempt to murder you!

Many self-defense instructors, as well as experts on self defense law, believe that if the situation is so clear-cut as to feel certain violence is unavoidable, the defender has a much better chance of surviving by landing the first blow and gaining the immediate upper hand. In fact, statistics have shown that a single well-placed blow in such a circumstance, has usually been all that is necessary to end the conflict. Certainly not by knocking out the aggressor (that would be considered a ‘lucky punch'), but by convincing the attacker he has made a bad choice and picked the wrong ‘victim'.

"What are the limits to the Defense of Self-defense?"

Excessive Force

Obviously, you can't shoot an unarmed man. That would be considered excessive force. But since we are mainly interested here in the ramifications of "unarmed" self-defense, we will save discussions about gun ownership for another time.

The most important limit to the defense of self-defense is that the level of response must not exceed the threat. This may seem a bit fuzzy, but that's the way most self defense laws are written. The reality is, if all self defense laws were absolutely clear, there would be no need for lawyers. We can only imagine...

But let's stay on subject.

Basically, if a 'victim' uses excessive force they become the aggressor. Force becomes excessive when it exceeds that which is needed to assure one's own safety. In other words, when he says, "I give up!", you have to stop hitting him. Immediately!

Self Defense Law

"But Your Honor! It was only one more for good measure! He deserved it!"

Can you see the judge frowning? Are you prepared to hear the words, "Thirty days!"?

Mutual Combat

Another important concept to the limits on defense of self-defense is something I would hope you would never be involved. But it is worth mentioning here, just for the sake of clarity.

Let's go back to the definition of Unlawful Force. It has already been described as murder, rape, robbery, arson, burglary and the like. Notice the word 'argument' is not included!

"When there is mutual combat upon a sudden quarrel,
both parties are the aggressors, and if in the fight one is killed
it will be manslaughter at least."

– 16th Century English Self Defense Law -

Ninety percent of all "fights" are started over something stupid. If the court feels your actions were unwarranted or avoidable, your defense of self-defense will fail. Especially, if those actions result in deadly force.

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Precautionary Measures

Some statutes on self defense law require that when threatened with violence, it is the duty of the person threatened to use all prudent and precautionary measures to prevent the attack. For example, if by closing a door which was usually left open, one could prevent an attack, it would be prudent, and perhaps the law might require that it should be closed in order to preserve the peace.

Also, as a general rule, "no man is allowed to defend himself with force if he can apply to the law for redress, and the law gives him a complete remedy."

In other words, call 9-1-1 first!

If you call for help, and you get attacked before the police arrive, do whatever you feel is necessary to protect yourself or others. In such a case, I doubt that you could find any jury in the country that would ever convict you of a crime.

However, if it can be shown that you could have called the cops and avoided the whole situation, you will be perceived as "taking the law into your own hands", and you can expect to spend a long time in jail. As well you should.

"Why do I need to research the self defense laws in my state?"

It would seem that all states would have the same self defense laws, and for the most part, they do. However, the confusion is based on the sometimes subtle differences in wording, and the basic concept of "duty to retreat", as previously mentioned.

Duty to Retreat

The confusion comes from a fundamental difference in the philosophy of criminal law. The current self defense laws in America are based on a theory of one's duty to retreat, meaning when faced with a hostile situation, run away. If you cannot run away and have to defend yourself, then use of force is acceptable.

In criminal law, the duty to retreat is a specific component which sometimes appears in the defense of self-defense, and which must be addressed if the defendant is to prove that his or her conduct was justified. In those jurisdictions where the requirement exists, the burden of proof is on the defense to show that the defendant was acting reasonably. This is often taken to mean that the defendant had first avoided conflict and secondly, had taken reasonable steps to retreat and so demonstrated an intention not to fight before eventually using force.

The Law

"Stand-Your-Ground" Law - The New Debate in Self Defense Law

"Stand Your Ground" laws, sometimes called shoot-first laws by their critics, are statutes that significantly expand the boundaries of legal self-defense by eliminating a person's duty to retreat from an invader or assailant in certain cases.

The state of Florida became the first to enact such a self defense law on October 1, 2005. The Florida statute allows the use of deadly force when a person reasonably believes it necessary to prevent the commission of a "forcible felony." Under the statute, forcible felonies include "treason; murder; manslaughter; sexual battery; car-jacking; home-invasion robbery; robbery; burglary; arson; kidnapping; aggravated assault; aggravated battery; aggravated stalking; aircraft piracy; unlawful placing, throwing, or discharging of a destructive device or bomb; and any other felony which involves the use or threat of physical force or violence against any individual."

The Florida law authorizes the use of defensive force by anyone "who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be." Furthermore, under the law, such a person "has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony." The statute also grants civil and criminal immunity to anyone found to have had such a reasonable belief.

Since the enactment of the Florida legislation, South Dakota, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Indiana have adopted similar statutes, and 15 other states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wyoming) are currently considering "Stand Your Ground" self defense laws of their own.

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"What are my responsibilities regarding the use of my Self-defense skills?"

Having read all of this information, I would hope that you come away with the understanding that there will always be consequences for any action you take. That goes for the trained martial artist, as well as someone with no training whatsoever.

Bottom Line: Use force, especially deadly force, only as a last resort.

  • Remember that according to self defense laws in most states, it is assumed that one has the duty to retreat from assault, if possible. Use common sense: You are always better off by doing everything possible to avoid a physical confrontation.

  • In your defense of self-defense, you may need to prove that you took "precautionary steps" to avoid the situation, such as locking doors and windows, or calling the police first.

  • In some states, the person about to take defensive steps has a duty to warn, if it would seem to do any good. No, there is no law that even remotely implies you must tell your assailant, "I'm warning you! I know Jujitsu!" However, if you have a gun, let the intruder know it. Then see if he understands the duty to retreat.

Court of Law

One final thought...

Do you remember our original question about the use of our self-defense skills?

"What does it (self defense law) mean to a jury of my peers?"

It really shouldn't matter, but the reality of our legal system suggests that the more you know about self-defense, the more responsibility you have to be prudent in its application.

For example, if you had taken a weekend self-defense seminar and had a few "dirty tricks" up your sleeve, a jury might be willing to excuse the fact that you gouged out an assailant's eye with your car keys and permanently damaged his foot when you stomped it. In fact, some of them may be thinking to themselves, "Way to go! I want to take that class!"

However, if it becomes known that you are a trained Black Belt with five years experience in the martial arts, you can bet that the same jury will not look at those same results in the same frame of mind. In fact, right or wrong, some may get the impression that you must have been looking for trouble. All you have to do is look at the way police are treated in our legal system anytime it even appears they may have crossed a line.

Always keep in mind, when it comes to self defense law, juries may weigh your experience against your actions, and they will penalize you severely if they think you should have known better.

The Solution

The best martial arts schools, in addition to teaching top-notch self-defense tactics, also teach strategies aimed at avoiding or defusing physical confrontations. The curriculum for such courses commonly teach positioning strategies and strengthening the defender's self-confidence, which is assumed to discourage some physical attacks.

For example, some studies have shown perpetrators who sexually assault acquaintances test their victims first. The perpetrator will gradually cross the potential victim's boundaries through techniques such as touching or making inappropriate sexual comments. If the woman responds with visible discomfort or fear, but no verbal reaction, his intrusive behavior may escalate to sexual assault. Women who responded to these early tactics with consistent assertiveness such as a push away and/or verbal warning, avoided rape.

With proper training, as provided by Budoshin Ju-jitsu, you will not need to worry about the ultimate consequences of your actions. That is because your actions will always be appropriate to the situation, and in accordance with self defense law! Correct action is instilled into your training from day one. If you can control your actions, and control your emotions, you can control any situation!

Our Motto: "Always strive for the best possible outcome."

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If you want to learn to protect yourself, then you will want to learn more about the different forms of martial arts that have actually continued to improve over time. "Complete" martial arts have all of the tools necessary to be able to evolve and adapt with the times. Follow these links to learn more:

  • Essential Self Defense - If you are interested in Self Defense Classes, you will want to learn the most powerful form of self-protection from one of the best Self Defense Programs in the World! These classes even include discussions on self defense law.

  • Budoshin Jujitsu - Budoshin Jujitsu Schools (Dojo) are the very best martial arts schools you can find. These martial arts schools offer more than most jujitsu schools; they provide complete martial arts instruction, and always with self defense law in mind.

  • Combat Jujitsu - Combat Jujitsu is used by US Military Special Operations Forces! It is the deadliest martial art known to man, and would certainly be classified in the category of Extreme Martial Arts. But Beware: This form of instruction holds little regard for self defense law.

Mark A. Jordan
Rokudan (6th Degree Black Belt)
Budoshin Jujitsu

Reference: Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia; Self Defense Law

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