It is not unheard of that, over the course of a criminal accusation that concerns some sort of violent dispute, a defendant will invoke their right to self-defense as a rationale for the charges against them being dropped. Given the ambiguity that tends to surround criminal investigations involving an altercation, it can be difficult for a layman to judge whether or not this invocation of self-defense is practical and thus should be respected. On both a federal and state level, there exists an extensive body of law that aims to clarify this issue of self-defense and better codify when this defense can be considered valid.
Regulations Concerning Self-Defense
In general, regulations concerning self-defense emphasize the “defense” aspect: it is difficult for the aggressor in a certain situation to claim that this first strike was in fact a method of self-defense. Federal law dictates that an individual is allowed to use reasonable force to defend themselves against an unlawful attack that would otherwise result in injury or death. State statutes concerning self-defense are somewhat more complicated, as there is variation depending on which state is being examined. As a rule of thumb, all state self-defense laws include an aspect of proportionality: if a person is in danger of injury but not death, their self defense must be non-lethal. Likewise, lethal force may only be used in self-defense if an individual believes themselves to be confronting an imminent threat of death.
There are also state-by-state exceptions as to an individual’s so-called “duty to retreat,” which stipulates that someone claiming self-defense must illustrate that their use of force came only as a result of their being otherwise unable to flee. The castle exception, however, states that there is no duty to retreat when an individual is dealing with a risk from someone who has broken into their home. A corollary to the castle exception is what is known as a “Stand Your Ground” law. This law removes the duty to retreat from a self-defense situation, essentially extending the castle exception to wherever an individual happens to be when they felt the need to use force for self-defense. Clearly, then, there exists a wide range of laws and statutes that govern the use of self-defense in the United States and whether a person may use either non-lethal or even lethal force to defend themselves when they feel in danger of bodily harm.
As can be expected, these laws do not mean that cases of self-defense are easily determined as valid or invalid in a court of law. In states with a duty to retreat, using the defense of self-defense often involves showing that an individual was unable to flee and had no other choice than to use force to protect themselves. Conversely, states with Stand Your Ground laws may see a more liberal use of the defense of self-defense, as the duty to retreat is not a consideration there. It can be assumed that debates concerning this defense will continue to rage.