The United States recognizes individuals’ rights to self-defense. However, using a claim of self-defense to protect yourself legally is not an ironclad strategy. A useful (if not technically accurate) way to think about a self-defense claim is that you are admitting you are guilty, and then trying to prove that it was justified. This effectively waives your presumption of innocence, and can create a legal hassle and further stress. While you should not fear exercising your right to self-defense if necessary, you should understand how self-defense law works so that you can minimize the legal consequences of your encounter. Here are 5 common mistakes that can land you in a heap of trouble:
#1 – Standing Your Ground If You Have a Duty to Retreat
A few states require a person to use every safe option to avoid the use of force before that force is considered legally justified. In other words, if you can safely escape and choose to engage a threat instead, that would not be legal in so-called “duty to retreat” states. In contrast, states such as Texas with “stand your ground” laws allow you to use whatever force you reasonably believe is necessary without requiring you to attempt to escape.
#2 – Instigating
You cannot claim self-defense if you yourself created the dangerous situation. In most street fight or bar fight situations, all participants can be charged with assault. You can only claim self-defense if you are an innocent party protecting yourself or others from unlawful, imminent danger. It is permissible to use force only for unprovoked, unlawful attacks.
#3 – Using More Force than Necessary
Use of any amount of force for self-defense is permissible only if you reasonably believe that amount of force is absolutely necessary to protect yourself from death or serious injury. What this means in practice is that you must be able to demonstrate after the fact that you could not have protected yourself using less force than you actually used.
Two strategies exist for reducing the amount of force required for self-defense: avoidance and discouragement. Avoidance means reducing the risk of an attack by maintaining situational awareness and avoiding settings where an attack is likely to occur. Discouragement means taking steps to disincentivize attackers. Most violent criminals target victims who appear vulnerable or submissive. Criminals are less likely to target confident, strong-looking individuals. Criminals are also less likely to invade homes that appear to be well-protected. Consider enrolling in martial arts training to build confidence and awareness, and employ strong home security options to keep yourself and your loved ones free from home invasions.
#4 – Oversharing
Hopefully your ordeal will never go to court at all. The physical and emotional trauma of a self-defense situation will be difficult enough without the added financial, emotional, and temporal burdens of a criminal or civil trial. However, just as in every aspect of self-defense, we train for the worst-case scenario. The sad irony of the law is that the truth is not as relevant as what you can prove in court. Even if your use of force was justified by the facts, you need to be mindful of how an overzealous prosecutor may choose to interpret or portray these facts.
In order to reduce the risk of charges being filed against you, and in order to maximize the chance of winning your case should charges be brought, you should not attempt to give a detailed statement to the police, even if they press for it. You should state simply, “I don’t know what happened; all I know is that I was afraid for my life.” This is not dishonesty! The reality is that attacks happen quickly in a state of intense stress. Studies have shown that these levels of stress distort perception. No matter how clear the memory may seem, your recall will not be completely reliable. Additionally, the effects of stress will inhibit normal cognitive functions for hours afterwards, potentially causing you to misspeak or otherwise falsely incriminate yourself when you provide your statement. Thus, the most provident and honest statement you can possibly give is “I don’t know what happened; all I know is that I was afraid for my life.”
#5 – Carrying Where (and What) You’re Not Allowed
Laws on the transportation, concealment, and use of firearms vary greatly from state-to-state. If you choose to carry a firearm, it is your responsibility to understand the laws of the state you carry in. Most states require special permits for concealed carry, and not all states recognize the permits of other states. Some states have bans on specific types of weapons, magazines, or ammunition. Some states restrict carry in certain locations. Federal buildings such as courthouses and post offices are always gun-free zones.
Many states allow private businesses and religious organizations to make their own rules regarding firearms. Typically, violating these rules is not a crime, but can get you in trouble with the organization in question.
It has often been said that “it is better to be tried by 12 men than carried by 6.” In other words, do whatever it takes to survive and worry about the legal consequences afterwards. Certainly it is true that you have the right to self-defense under the conditions described, and you should not fail to exercise that right for fear of legal consequences. However, rather than disregarding the legal impact of your choices, it is infinitely better to consider them in advance of encountering dangerous situation, so that you can be prepared to make smart choices before, during, and after an attack.
Author Information: Rachael Murphey is an entrepreneur and writer on the topics of business, economics, and politics. She has written for Host Review and HR.com. She currently lives in Denver with her dog Charlie. You can find her on Twitter.