In almost every legal jurisdiction, if you are charged with a serious crime – something like aggravated battery or homicide – and you can prove that you acted in self-defense, you’ll be acquitted. How is self-defense defined by California law? If you are charged with a crime, how do you show that you were acting in self-defense? You’re about to learn some answers that everyone in California should know.

However, the first and most important thing to know about self-defense in California – right from the start – is that that if you are accused of a crime, and you believe that you are not guilty because you acted in self-defense, you must put a skilled defense attorney to work on your case at once. In southern California, contact and speak with an experienced Orange County criminal defense attorney.

Generally speaking, and in every state, acting with force in self-defense is permissible only when a threat is imminent and immediate. Verbal threats and intimidation that are not backed up by a reasonably believable threat of imminent death or injury do not justify the application of force. Additionally, after the threat has faded or concluded, force is no longer legally permissible.

UNDER WHAT CIRCUMSTANCES IS SELF-DEFENSE OR THE USE OF LEGAL SELF-DEFENSE WEAPONS PERMISSIBLE?

You cannot be convicted of a crime in California if your allegedly criminal act was committed in self-defense – provided, and this is important, that your action was “reasonable under the circumstances.” You may also act defensively to protect a third person or even to protect property.

When a criminal defendant claims self-defense in California, acting “reasonable under the circumstances” means the defendant:

– reasonably believed there was imminent danger of being killed, injured, illegally touched, or robbed, or of a third person being killed, injured, illegally touched, or robbed
– reasonably believed that he or she needed to resist the danger with force
– used only the force that was necessary for defense of a third person or for self-defense

In a number of states, the application of force in the act of self-defense is allowed by law exclusively as a final resort. Anyone who is being plausibly and imminently threatened in one of those states has a legal “duty to retreat” or to attempt to avoid the need to use force or to act in self-defense.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO STAND YOUR GROUND?

California, however, is a “stand your ground” state, so a person in this state has no legal duty to retreat from potential danger. You may legally stand your ground and even use deadly force in California if you have a reasonable belief that such force is necessary to avoid death or serious injury.

However, and even in a “stand your ground” state like California, you cannot act in “self-defense” after the person you are protecting yourself against no longer poses a threat.

Additionally, you may only defend yourself or another person in California against these “forcible and atrocious” crimes:

– manslaughter or murder
– an attack that would cause great bodily injury
– rape or other sexual assault
– mayhem
– robbery

While the law governing self-defense in California seems straightforward, when actual cases are tried in actual courtrooms, self-defense and the laws that define it are considerably more complicated than many people think. To address the variety of situations that may give rise to a claim of self-defense, California law spells out when self-defense is acceptable and how much force may be used.

WHAT IS AN “IMMINENT” DANGER? WHAT IS A “REASONABLE” BELIEF?

What, for example, is “imminent” danger, and what is a “reasonable belief” that danger is imminent? To prevail with the legal defense of self-defense in California, a defendant must show that the danger was about to happen – immediately. If the threat was set in the future, no matter how dangerous or credible it seemed, self-defense cannot be offered as a legal defense.

To determine if a defendant’s belief that danger was imminent was reasonable, jurors are asked to put a theoretical “reasonable person” in the defendant’s position. Would that reasonable person also have believed that danger was imminent? If a defendant was intoxicated or mentally ill – or if the belief that danger was imminent simply was not reasonable – self-defense will likely fail as a legal defense strategy.

However, California does allow “battered woman’s syndrome” to be offered as a defense when a defendant has acted in self-defense against a spouse or against another intimate partner, provided there is evidence that the couple’s relationship was characterized by domestic violence. Jurors in these cases may consider the effects of domestic abuse in determining whether a defendant acted “reasonably” in self-defense.

WHAT ABOUT PROTECTING YOUR HOME AND PROPERTY?

California law additionally presumes that if someone breaks into and enters or attempts to enter your residence – so long as that person is not a household or family member – that you may be in reasonable fear of great bodily harm or death. The general rule, however, is that you are only permitted to use the amount of force needed to defend yourself – and not more.

California law also allows for the use of force to defend your property and possessions – your home, vehicles, cash, and other possessions. Again, and as you might expect, if you act in self-defense to protect property, the threat to the property must be imminent, and you may use only the amount of force that’s necessary – and not more.

MAY FORCE BE USED AGAINST A TRESPASSER?

You do have the right in California to use a reasonable amount force against an uncooperative trespasser. However, you must first verbally ask the trespasser to leave your property, and you must reasonably believe that the trespasser poses a threat to either the property or to the people who are legally on the property.

In southern California, if you believe that you were acting in self-defense, but you are nevertheless charged with a crime, you must be defended by an experienced Orange County criminal defense attorney. Don’t explain what happened to the police – what you say could be used against you in court.

Insist on your right to remain silent and to have an attorney present for any questioning. You have the right to defend yourself in all fifty states, and California law allows you to “stand your ground,” but if you kill or injure another person while defending yourself, you’ll probably be arrested and charged with a felony. If that happens to you or to someone you love, get the legal help you need, and get it at once.