We teach self-defense so our students can be safe. But even if you survive the physical fight, a second fight with the legal system may ensue. If it's clear to the police and the prosecutor that you weren't the aggressor and that you were the undisputed bad guy, they may choose not to press charges. But it may or may not be clear that you're the good guy. If you make a mistake, you could find yourself on the wrong end of a prosecution or a lawsuit. Even if you win the case, you'll pay tens of thousands in legal fees--and that's if the case doesn't go to trial.
This may sound unfair, but you need to understand where the prosecutor is coming from. Every violent criminal claims self-defense. This means that 90% or more of self-defense claims are total bunk. It can be extremely difficult for prosecutors to distinguish the good guy from the bad guy based on their incomplete view of the facts. This is why it's vital for every martial artist to not only understand the principles of effective self-defense, but also the relevant laws of their state.
Self-Defense Law Differs in Every State
There is significant variation between states' laws regarding self-defense. Some states allow for pre-trial hearings to determine whether or not a self-defense claim is warranted. Some states (including Utah) will provide immunity from civil liability if the criminal court clears the defendant. Some states implement castle-doctrine or stand-your-ground laws. States vary significantly on which self-defense tools are legally permissible for ownership and use.
Even so, there are some commonalities in legal philosophy. For the use of force against an attacker to be justified, these four elements must be proved (five, if you're in a state that requires a duty to retreat):
The attacker must have posed an imminent threat to your life or limb.
You can't have been the aggressor in the attack. You also must not have been involved in the commission of an underlying crime. Mutually-consensual combat is also a disqualifier for a self-defense claim.
You cannot use more force than was necessary to end the threat; nor can you apply deadly force against an attacker who was not applying deadly force. Exceptions are made in castle-doctrine states.
Your belief in the existence of the threat must be reasonable--i.e., a reasonable person would come to the same conclusion and respond in a similar manner.
Some states (not Utah) require you to prove that you could not have fled the situation. While it is always tactically advisable to retreat if you have the option, it’s probably unreasonable for the court to demand that you prove you had no ability to do so.
Burden of Proof
All four (or five) elements are required for a self-defense claim to be successful in court. If any one of the elements is missing, you will be prosecuted for assault, battery, or homicide. Further, making a self-defense claim effectively waives your right to the presumption of innocence. The burden of evidence shifts from the prosecution to the defense. Making a claim of self-defense is effectively pleading guilty to the charge, but then saying “It’s okay because my actions were justified.” The onus is then on you to prove that it was justified.
Stand Your Ground
By way of clarification, since the newsmedia is chronically incapable of reporting this honestly: stand-your-ground laws are nothing more than removing the “avoidance” element from the defendant’s burden of proof. It’s not really that controversial, since requiring you to prove the inability to flee is generally considered to be an unreasonable standard.
Since we’re on the topic, “castle doctrine” laws simply state that if an intruder is in your home against your wishes, the law assumes that they are a deadly threat. Castle doctrine laws effectively fulfill the imminence, innocence, reasonableness, and avoidance standards for you.
What You May Say to Police Investigators Matters
Even when a martial artist has successfully defended themselves or another individual, there could still be a police investigation. This is common with a homicide, putting more emphasis on the fact that even one punch can be considered deadly force. The police could potentially charge a professional martial artist with first-degree assault when this occurs, and any questioning should only be answered with legal counsel present.
If you’re looking for more information about self-defense and other related topics, make sure to check out our blog!