Self-defense>Legal aspects>Laws of self-defense

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Laws of self-defense


The United States Constitution and state laws permit people to protect themselves. Homeowners have legal measures that may be used to keep out intruders. The use of force by one person against another is illegal unless used in the line of duty, such as a police officer, or in reasonable self-defense. What is reasonable depends on the severity of the attack and the circumstance of the attack.

When may force be used

A person may use force, even deadly force, against another person if he/she reasonably believes that such force is immediately necessary for protecting himself or herself against the use of unlawful force by such other person. Such justifiable use of force is commonly called "self-defense." In other words, self-defense is the right of a person to defend against any unlawful force or any seriously threatened unlawful force that is pending or may be reasonably anticipated. The force used by the defender must not be significantly greater than, and must be proportionate to, the unlawful force threatened or used against the defender.
Unlawful force is defined as the force used against a person without the person's consent in such a way that the action would be a civil wrong or a criminal offense. If the force used by the defender was not immediately necessary for his or her protection or if the force used was disproportionate in its intensity to that of the attacker, then the use of such force by the defendant was not justified and the self-defense claim in a criminal prosecution fails. For example: if someone swings at you with a club and you knock her out with a punch, you have acted justifiably and legally to defend yourself. The force you used was not disproportionate to the force of the attack. It is immaterial that you were not actually hit by the club.  
The use of deadly force may be justified only to defend against force or the threat of force of nearly equal severity, and is not justifiable unless the defendant reasonably believes that such force is necessary to protect himself or herself against death or serious bodily harm. Serious bodily harm is an injury that creates a substantial risk of death, causes serious permanent disfigurement, or causes a protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ.
One cannot respond with deadly force to a threat of, or even an actual, minor attack. For example, a slap or an imminent threat of being pushed would not ordinarily justify the use of deadly force to defend against such unlawful conduct.
When you must defend yourself and the attacker claims injury, most people worry about their possible liability. There are two vastly different grounds for liability: criminal liability and civil liability. There are two types of law: criminal and civil. Criminal law delineates rules of behavior that, when violated, may lead to punishment by incarceration or fine, or both. Civil law states which actions may lead to personal liability. Since these are two entirely different types of law with separate courts and procedures, a person found not guilty of a crime in a criminal court may still be found liable in a civil court. The results of a criminal court do not affect a civil court and vice versa. In a criminal court, the government tries and punishes a person for criminal action against society. In a civil court, a person may be found personally liable for an action that injures another party.

Fighting words

The First Amendment doctrine holds that certain utterances are not constitutionally protected as free speech if they are inherently likely to provoke a violent response from the audience. N.A.A.C.P. v. Claiborne Hardware Co., Miss., 458 U.S. 886, 102 S.Ct. 3409, 73 L.Ed.2d 1215 (1982).
These are words that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. These are words that have a direct tendency to cause acts of violence by the persons to whom, individually, the remark is addressed. The test is what persons of common intelligence would understand to be words likely to cause an average addressee to fight. City of Seattle v. Camby, 104 Wash.2d 49, 701 P.2d 499, 500.
The "freedom of speech" protected by the Constitution is not absolute at all times and under all circumstances and there are well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which does not raise any constitutional problem, including the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or "fighting words" which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568, 62 S.Ct. 766, 86 L.Ed. 1031. 

Hands as deadly weapons

No state requires boxers or anyone skilled in martial arts to register their hands or any other body part as lethal weapons. Whether hands or other body parts even qualify as deadly weapons depends on how "deadly weapon," "lethal weapon," or "deadly force" is defined in the law. Vitauts M. Gulbis, "Parts of the Human Body, Other Than Feet, as Deadly or Dangerous Weapons for Purposes of Statutes Aggravating Offenses Such as Assault and Robbery," 8 A.L.R.4th 1268 (1981 and supplements); Christopher Vaeth, "Kicking as Aggravated Assault, or Assault With Dangerous or Deadly Weapon," 19 A.L.R.5th 823 (1995 and supplements).
Most statutes require an object external to the human body before the "deadly weapon" element of a crime may be met. For example, in Minnesota v. Bastin, 572 N.W.2d 281 (Minn. 1997), the Minnesota Supreme Court overruled the trial court's conclusion that the left fist of the defendant, a former licensed professional prizefighter, was a "deadly weapon."
However, some courts have concluded that a criminal defendant's experience in boxing or martial arts should be considered when deciding whether he or she possessed a required intent to cause harm. For instance, in Trujillo v. State, 750 P.2d 1334 (Wyo. 1988), the Wyoming Supreme Court found that there was sufficient evidence to support the defendant's conviction for aggravated assault after he punched someone in the head. His history as a trained boxer was one bit of evidence supporting the jury's findings on his mental state. Also, in the Matter of the Welfare of D.S.F., 416 N.W.2d 772 (Minn. App. 1988), the Minnesota Court of Appeals held that there was sufficient evidence to conclude that the actions of the defendant, who had "substantial experience in karate," were sufficient to demonstrate his knowledge that he was hitting the victim with sufficient force to break the victim's jaw.
A criminal defendant's boxing or martial arts experience may be relevant to determining the validity of a self-defense claim. For instance, in Idaho v. Babbitt, 120 Idaho 337, 815 P.2d 1077 (Idaho App. 1991), the defendant shot the victim and claimed self-defense. The trial court admitted evidence regarding the defendant's past training and experience as a boxer, concluding that it was relevant to a determination of whether the defendant truly believed it was necessary to shoot the victim to protect himself and others. The Idaho Court of Appeals affirmed. 


Self-defense has been recognized in both the criminal code and civil liability cases. One does not have a right to self-defense—self-defense is a privilege extended by the law, not a right. One may defend oneself or another person from physical harm when no other options are reasonably available, however, martial artists should be aware of the legal limitations. Martial arts training may protect a person in a self-defense situation, but, if it is used improperly, it may lead to criminal charges or civil liability.
Generally, you should observe the following:
  • Stay away from places and areas where you could get into trouble.
  • If you are attacked and cannot retreat, use only the force necessary to stop the attack and to hold the assailant for the police.
  • Stop your assault as soon as the attacker is unable to continue the attack, submitted, or is in custody. Legally, you are on firm ground if your actions were as reasonable as those that any reasonable person would have taken under the same conditions.
  • Call the police immediately. You must justify that your actions were necessary to protect yourself. 
  •  alert to any witnesses who may support your side of the story. 
The self-defense laws of each state may be different, but certain basic premises are common to all states. English common law is the basis for most laws in the United States, but some states, such as Louisiana, base their laws on continental European law, so their laws may differ. You should contact your state attorney general or a library for specific information on your country or state.


  • The Law of Self-Defense. (1975). Atlanta, Georgia: Institute for Self-Defense.
  • Sendor, B. B. Ed. (1985). North Carolina Crimes. A Guidebook on the Elements of Crime. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Institute of Government.
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