Asserting a Defense
In the days of the Wild West in California there was no question that force could be met with force. Responding with force in the 21st century, however, to protect yourself, a loved one, or your property could land you in jail.
In a criminal self-defense case, the State of California has the burden of proving the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. While in most cases the defendant is not required to do anything to prove his or her innocence, affirmative defenses shift the burden of proof to the defendant. Self-defense is not an affirmative defense in California which means the prosecutor must prove you did not act in self-defense in order for you to be found guilty.
Self-Defense in California Law
California law discusses self-defense in California Penal Code Section 197 which qualifies self-defense as an act committed when:
- You reasonably believed that you were in imminent danger of being killed, injured, or unlawfully touched; AND
- Your reasonably believed that force was necessary to prevent the death, injury or touching; AND
- You used no more force than was necessary to prevent the death, injury, or touching
Self-defense used in your home – during an burglary, for example – is addressed in California Penal Code Section 198.5, also known as the California Castle Law, which creates a presumption that the actions were justified:
Any person using force intended or likely to cause death or great bodily injury within his or her residence shall be presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily injury to self, family, or a member of the household when that force is used against another person, not a member of the family or household, who unlawfully and forcibly enters or has unlawfully and forcibly entered the residence and the person using the force knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry occurred.
“Stand Your Ground” in California
The right to “stand your ground” in California is found in California Criminal Jury Instructions 505 and 506 which state:
- A defendant is not required to retreat
- He or she is entitled to stand his or her ground and defend himself or herself and if reasonably necessary, to pursue an assailant until the danger of death/great bodily injury/forcible and atrocious crime has passed
This right applies even if safety could have been achieved by retreating.
Defining “Reasonable” in Court
In self-defense cases, the jury is instructed to use an objective reasonable person standard. This means the jury should ask, “Would a reasonable person, under the exact same circumstances, have believed he/she was in imminent danger and believed that force was necessary?” It is not important what the defendant actually believed. An exception to the objective reasonable person standard is found in domestic abuse cases.
In most cases, both law enforcement and prosecutors err on the side of caution. It is generally easier to dismiss criminal charges down the road than to charge a suspect long after the fact. Always remember, there is a huge difference between being charged and being convicted. Do not talk to police if arrested and/or charged.