Murder and other violent crimes are typically charged as serious felonies. However, there are exceptions to this rule wherein a defendant may have been justified in the use of deadly force. This type of legal defense is known as “self-defense.”
All states allow defendants to claim self-defense. However, states differ on what they consider appropriate use of force and when it is reasonable to use force, including firearms, to protect yourself.
If you use a firearm as a means of self-defense in the state of California, you may be found not guilty if your conduct is decided to have been “reasonable under the circumstances.”
What is Self-Defense?
Self-defense is a legal strategy that asserts a defendant acted in a manner consistent with protecting themselves, another person, or their property against an injury attempted by another. California’s jury instructions allow defendants to use self-defense to justify their actions when charged with certain violent offenses in a criminal trial. If through the evidence, self-defense is proven, a jury could acquit a defendant based on the belief that their actions were justifiable under the circumstances.
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What is a Firearm?
According to California law, a firearm is defined as “a device, designed to be used as a weapon, from which is expelled through a barrel, a projectile by the force of an explosion or other form of combustion.” Typical firearms include but are not limited to handguns, pistols, revolvers, rifles, and shotguns.
What Kind of Conduct is Considered Reasonable Under the Circumstances?
For conduct to be considered “reasonable under the circumstances,” it must meet the following criteria:
- You reasonably believed you were in imminent danger of being killed or injured
- You reasonably felt you needed to use force to stop this imminent threat
- You did not use more force than necessary to control the situation
Consider the following example: An armed robber breaks into your house and points his gun at you. You pull out your gun and shoot him before he can shoot you, killing him. In this situation, you would be found not guilty of murder because you reasonably believed you were in imminent danger and reacted by using deadly force responsibly.
What is Imminent Danger?
Self-defense can be a legitimate argument as long as the defendant reasonably believes they were in imminent danger at the time of the incident. A danger is considered “imminent” when the threat is at hand or immediate, as when it occurs in an individual’s presence. An imminent danger is not a prospective threat of action that may or may not happen in the future.
What is Reasonable Belief in a Threat?
Self-defense can be used as an excuse when an individual has good cause to believe a threat exists, but this belief does not necessarily need to be accurate – just reasonable. When making this determination, a jury will consider whether a reasonable person would have come to the same conclusion as the defendant in a similar situation.
What is Justifiable Force?
Persons acting in self-defense are expected to use an appropriate amount of force as needed to stop a perceived danger. For example, if a person threatened to slap you, shooting them with a firearm would surpass the level of force required to avert the threat.
What is Deadly Force?
Deadly force, including firearm use, may be excusable if you reasonably believed you were in immediate danger of being severely injured or killed. Moreover, if you are threatened with significant bodily harm or death, the use of lethal force may be legally justifiable.
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What is Imperfect Self-Defense?
Imperfect self-defense is a legal concept that applies when a person believed (1) they were in imminent danger of bodily harm or death or (2) that their use of force was needed to protect themself, but (3) at least one of these beliefs was unreasonable. In other words, the defendant acted according to their honest feelings, but a reasonable person would not have perceived danger or reacted the same way in a similar situation.
So, in some cases, a defendant may be able to reduce the severity of the charges they are facing by claiming imperfect self-defense. For example, instead of spending life in prison for murder, the accused can be convicted of voluntary manslaughter and receive a sentence of no more than 11 years.
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Does This Mean a Person Can Use a Firearm to Protect Their Home?
Under California Penal Code (PC) §198.5, yes, you can use a firearm to protect your home if you reasonably fear impending danger. The law protects you in cases where:
- You know or are given reason to believe that the intruder entered your home illegally
- You have a reasonable fear of death from the intruder harming you, your family, or another member of your household
- Neither you nor anyone else in your home provoked the intruder in any way
Note that a police officer who needs to enter your home as part of his job is entering your home legally. This situation is not the same as an intruder forcing his way into your home to steal your property or cause harm to you and your family. Therefore, shooting the police officer would not be considered self-defense.
If the Attacker Lowers His Gun, But I Shoot Him Anyway Out of Fear, is This Self-Defense?
If your attacker withdraws from the situation or is injured or otherwise incapable of hurting you, then you are acting unreasonably if you use deadly force against them. Again, an experienced criminal defense attorney in California would be able to help you understand your rights in this type of situation.
When is Self-Defense Considered an Acceptable Legal Defense?
There are several crimes for which self-defense can be considered a legitimate legal defense in California. Some of the more serious crimes include murder, manslaughter, assault with a deadly weapon, and aggravated battery. Others include domestic abuse, domestic battery, and simple assault.
If I Start a Fight and it Escalates, Can I Still Claim Self-Defense?
This situation is a bit tricky. It depends on the circumstances. A person who starts a fight can still claim self-defense if:
- They try in good faith to stop the fight
- They state or otherwise make it clear to the other party that they want to stop fighting and then stop fighting.
- They give the other party the opportunity to end the fight
They were forced to defend themselves accordingly when the other person escalated the physical conflict by unjustifiably using deadly force. However, a person cannot claim self-defense if they deliberately start a fight as an excuse to use force against the other person.
Is California a ‘Stand Your Ground’ State?
No. However, California does subscribe to the “castle doctrine,” which is similar. Under the castle doctrine, a person is entitled to use deadly force to protect their home or workplace, so long as they act reasonably under the circumstances.
The castle doctrine is like “stand your ground” in that you do not have to attempt to escape before you act. However, once you leave your property, you forfeit the rights that would have been afforded to you under the castle doctrine.
In true “stand your ground” states, your location does not matter. If someone attacks or threatens you, you are not required to attempt to escape the situation before you act. Wherever you are, you are allowed to stand your ground. However, in California, you can only fight without attempting to retreat when defending your property.
Self-Defense Can Be Difficult to Prove
As you can see, self-defense laws are complicated. Proving that you acted in self-defense, especially when you used a firearm, can often be difficult. Even using this defense in court can be complicated. While the burden of proof usually lies with the prosecution in a criminal trial, the burden of proof temporarily transfers to the defendant when claiming self-defense.
The defense must produce evidence that supports their claim of self-defense. Fortunately, once evidence to back up this claim has been produced, the burden of proof switches back to the prosecution. The prosecutor must then disprove the self-defense claim beyond a reasonable doubt.
Attempting to build a case of self-defense on your own can be difficult. Therefore, it is important to have an experienced criminal defense lawyer by your side. An experienced attorney will have a far better chance of building a solid self-defense claim that will stand up in court.
Learn More by Speaking to a Criminal Defense Lawyer Today
Do you have a case you would like to discuss with a Los Angeles criminal defense attorney to see if it qualifies as self-defense? At Simmrin Law Group, we have helped countless people build self-defense cases to protect them against unjust charges. The state of California defines certain conduct as self-defense when using a firearm. Find out what constitutes self-defense with a firearm under state law.
Fill out the form to the right or call us to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation today. A team member will review the facts of your case, answer any questions you may have, and advise you on your legal options.