Legal Briefs

The Legalities of Defending Your Life

Debra Littlejohn Shinder

"Thou shalt not kill." Regardless of religious factors, in some form or another that's the law of most lands. It is, in fact, one of the most basic rules necessary for people to function in a society.

The rule is enforced more or less strictly, depending on the society. In most cultures, taking the life of another is one of the most serious of all crimes, and punishment is severe. It is generally recognized, however, that there are legitimate exceptions to the rule.

"Self-defense" is the magic phrase that justifies the use of lethal force under most legal systems and in most of our minds. Some are shocked to learn that those words don't guarantee automatic understanding and instant dismissal of the incident by the police, public and press. Are you aware of the legalities, in your state or country, of using deadly force in self-defense?

Have you gone to the trouble of learning how to protect yourself from an attacker, invested time and money in a weapon and acquiring the skills to use it or taken classes in unarmed defense? Then it's absolutely imperative that you take the next step: learn to defend yourself against laws which, although necessary and good, can also hurt you -- especially if you aren't aware of how the system works.

In most jurisdictions, self-defense is a defense to prosecution. That means if you can prove that your actions were immediately necessary to save you from serious harm, you won't be convicted of a homicide offense. It doesn't mean that you can't or won't be arrested. Even if you aren't taken to jail, it's likely that if you hurt someone, you'll be detained and interrogated. If you're still armed when police arrive on the scene -- even if you're the one who called them -- you may find yourself handcuffed and undergo the frightening experience of having their weapons pointed at you.

Here is the officers' dilemma: they don't know you, and have no way of knowing if your claims of self-defense are true, nor whether you're a danger to them and others. Police department policies may require that they cuff you and take you in if you've killed or injured someone, even if it was justified. If you don't understand this, and try to fight them or run, you may end up getting hurt or creating even more legal trouble for yourself.

Even if no criminal charges are filed against you, be aware of the possibility of a civil suit. Ludicrous as it sounds, the family of the attacker can sue you for causing his death. Even if you win in court, the stress and expense of a lawsuit are the last things you need after the trauma you've undergone.

Laws vary widely. Educate yourself about the laws governing the use of force where you live. Know what does and doesn't constitute self-defense (revenge doesn't fall under that definition and is rarely sanctioned by law). If you ever do have to use lethal force to protect yourself from imminent harm, follow these broad guidelines:

Having to defend yourself against force is bad enough without having to defend those actions afterward to police or even a judge and jury. But there is a saying that "it's better to be judged by twelve than carried by six [the usual number of pallbearers at a funeral]."

For good reasons, the laws against taking a human life are stringent. But if the only alternative is dying or suffering serious injury at the hands of an attacker, don't let fear of legal ramifications stop you from saving your own life. Defending yourself from physical harm can result in public scrutiny, financial loss or even criminal charges. But the same fighting spirit that kept you alive can help you to triumph in the legal arena as well.

About Debra Littlejohn Shinder.

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