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Proportionality And You: What You Need To Know Before You Fight Back

If you are a martial artist, then you are aware that you may come across a situation where you need to defend yourself. These situations are never easy, and no amount of preparation is ever enough. However, you need to understand how to fight back and what approach to use if you hope to survive the physical fight. You also need to understand the relevant laws of your state, or you may not prevail in the legal fight that happens next.

You are a Weapon

Even unarmed use of force can be considered deadly under some circumstances. As a trained martial artist, a court may be more likely to view your use of force as deadly. While this might make you feel like a badass, it is no laughing matter when the law comes into play.

Deadly force can be justified in some situations. But it's important to understand if and when deadly force is legally permissible, or you may step outside the bounds of justifiable self-defense.

Which Situations Call for Use of Force?

There are situations that call for use of force, and then there are some that don't. Knowing the difference can make all the difference--between going home to your family and going to jail for the rest of your life.

The standard that is most often applied is called "proportional use of force." This means that if you have a reasonable, good-faith belief that a person poses an imminent danger to your life, or is putting you in fear of serious bodily harm, you are authorized to use the minimum amount of force necessary to stop that threat--up to and including deadly force.

There are a number of limitations or exceptions to this rule, including:

-You cannot be engaged in "mutual combat"--meaning if you and another participant agree to a fight, you cannot interpret their agreement as an imminent threat.

-You cannot be involved in the commission of a felony crime.

-You cannot be the aggressor. This point seems obvious, but it is a really sticky one, for reasons I'll explain in a moment.

When to Stop Fighting?

It's important to understand how the law understands what constitutes an "imminent threat." Let's do a thought experiment. Let's say you are jumped in a parking lot. Understanding the seriousness of the situation, you put all of your self-defense training to full use. After your attacker takes a knee, an elbow, and a palm-heel strike to the face, he decides he messed with the wrong chick, and gets the hell outa dodge. But your adrenaline is still pumping, and you want to be sure that he doesn't come back for more. So you pursue, overtake him, and proceed to give him the beating of his life. The police show up, put hancuffs on the punch-drunk assailant, and take your statement.

Pop quiz time: was your use of force justified?

No. No it was not.

Even though you were clearly not the aggressor in the initial encounter, your legal justification for the use of force ended the moment the attacker fled. At that point, a court of law could argue that a "reasonable person" would no longer perceive an imminent threat. The fight has ended. When you pursue the attacker and continue the use of force against him, you have initiated what the law considers to be a second altercation, in which you most definitely were the aggressor.

Now, hopefully the police and the prosecutor can read between the lines and will cut you some slack. But there is a very real possibility that they will not. After all, they weren't eyewitnesses to the event. The attacker is undoubtedly telling a different version of events, and it's your word against his. And, keep in mind, every violent criminal claims self-defense, so there isn't much reason to believe you over the attacker. In our legal system, prosecutors are incentivized to convict whenever they can bring enough evidence to make a strong case. If you give them the opportunity, they will put you behind bars!

The fact that you consider yourself the "good guy" won't mean diddly.

How Much Force is Acceptable?

Proportionality means you are allowed to use the minimum necessary force to stop the threat. If you are being mildly harassed and your personal space is being violated, but the offender hasn't said or done anything that you can reasonably call a threat of death or serious bodily harm, you are legally permitted to cause that person to stop violating your personal space. For example, a bully is playing "stop hitting yourself." This is annoying and deeply inappropriate, but probably not life-threatening. You are legally permitted to shove the bully away, and use the minimum amount of force necessary to keep him away. But up until this point, since no deadly threat has presented itself, deadly force is not authorized.

Is the concept of proportionality becoming clear yet?

This can be tricky for martial artists. Can you hit or strike or kick a bully to stop the abusive behavior? Possibly, but it's also highly probable that these strikes can cross the line into deadly force without your intending to apply that level of force. For example, a well-timed punch to the chin could knock the bully out. If his head smacks concrete or linoleum hard enough on the way down, it could cause permanent brain damage or even death. It happens all the time.

Further, the more force you apply in your own defense, the more the situation is likely to escalate. What started as a verbal altercation may become a shoving match, which may come to blows. If a prosecutor can demonstrate that you had the option to deescalate or escape the situation, and chose to continue unnecessary violence, you may be convicted of assault, aggravated assault, battery, manslaughter, or even second-degree murder. Even if you win the case, your legal defense will cost tens of thousands of dollars--and that's if the grand jury decides not to indict. If your case goes to trial, it will cost ten or twenty times as much.

That's why it's so vital for you to understand this principle of "minimum necessary force." Even though Utah does not legally impose a duty to retreat (it's a stand-your-ground state), it is still both legally and tactically advisable to escape or deescalate a situation whenever possible.

Never fight, unless you are absolutely out of other options!

What About Weapons?

When it comes to use of weapons for self-defense, it's a little more cut and dry. The use of any weapon--especialy a firearm--is considered deadly force. Even drawing or displaying a gun meets the legal definition of assault, unless all of the elements of justified use of force are present. And depending on where you live, you might not be able to carry a weapon for self-defense purposes at all. It's important to know the gun laws of your state, so you aren't walking around thinking you are protecting yourself when in reality you are a guilty verdict waiting to happen. Even if someone poses an imminent danger of causing you death or serious bodily harm, your use of force may still not be legally permissible if guns are not allowed where you live, or if you otherwise fail to comply with relevant gun laws. So it’s critical to always know the law. Check out this helpful infographic:

When it comes to defending yourself, your first priority must be to protect your safety. If you don't win the physical fight, you won't even have the opportunity to win or lose the legal fight. This is why I'm such an advocate for effective self-defense training, despite the liabilities. You should become justifiably confident that you have what it takes to defend yourself from attackers, as well as keep the law on your side.


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