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Written by Attorney Seth Morris


Self-defense is a right recognized by the state of California.  These laws empower individuals to protect themselves and others from imminent harm, but navigating the law in practice can be complex.

Misinterpreting self-defense can lead to severe legal consequences and criminal charges. Here’s what you need to know about your rights in self-defense scenarios in California.

When Is Self-Defense Legal in California?

Under California law, the use of force in self-defense is justified when an individual reasonably believes that they or someone else is in imminent danger of suffering bodily injury or harm. This belief must be reasonable based on the circumstances, and not merely a subjective fear or apprehension. Essentially, what matters most is your honest and reasonable perception of danger, not necessarily whether the threat was real.

However, this justification hinges on another crucial concept: proportionality. This means the force used in self-defense must be reasonable and proportionate to the threat faced. In situations where the threat does not rise to the level of deadly force, individuals may use non-deadly force to defend themselves or others as long as it is proportional to the threat. This can include physical actions like pushing, striking, or restraining an assailant.

When Can You Use Deadly Force?

The use of deadly force is tightly regulated. In California, deadly force is justified only if a person reasonably believes it is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily injury.

The use of deadly force is subject to strict scrutiny and must be an absolute last resort when non-deadly options have been exhausted or are impractical. Using excessive force can lead to criminal charges in some circumstances.

Can You Defend Other People or Property?

Yes, self-defense rights extend to the defense others and property. One can use reasonable force to protect another person if they believe that individual is in imminent danger. Defending your property is also allowed, though the force must be proportionate.

Do You Have a Duty to Retreat Before Using Force?

California does not impose a duty to retreat before using force in self-defense, aligning with the “Stand Your Ground” doctrine. This principle allows individuals to stand their ground and use necessary force without retreating, provided they are in a place where they have a right to be, such as their home.

Limitations and Exceptions to Self-Defense in California

Self-defense may not be available as a legal justification if the individual claiming self-defense provoked or instigated the altercation. Also, you are generally not permitted to use force against a peace officer who is acting within the scope of their duties, even if the officer’s actions are perceived as unlawful. However, there may be limited exceptions in cases of excessive force or clear abuse of authority.

Example Self-Defense Scenarios

Here are a few examples of self-defense scenarios and how California’s self-defense laws might come into play:

1. Street Mugging

You’re walking home at night and someone confronts you, demanding your wallet. They shove you, but don’t display a weapon.

This scenario likely wouldn’t justify deadly force. You might use pepper spray or try to run away before resorting to stronger measures.

2. Home Invasion

While at home alone, you hear a loud crash downstairs. Grabbing a baseball bat, you investigate and find a stranger ransacking your living room.

You would likely be justified in using reasonable force in this situation, including deadly force if necessary, to protect yourself and your property.

3. Escalating Argument

During a heated argument with a neighbor, they shove you and lunge towards you with a closed fist.

This is a trickier situation. The neighbor’s actions might constitute imminent danger, but the level of threat (unarmed punch) requires evaluating proportionality. You could argue self-defense if you used a similar level of force to stop their attack, but deadly force wouldn’t be justified.

These are just a few examples, and the legal analysis will depend on the specific details of each situation.

Can You Face Charges for Defending Yourself?

In California, self-defense is considered an affirmative defense. This means that the defendant bears the burden of proof in establishing that their actions were justified under the law. This burden is typically met by presenting evidence and testimony that supports the claim of self-defense.

Even in clear self-defense scenarios, individuals may face criminal charges. Common defenses include proving the reasonableness of the belief in imminent danger and the necessity of the force used.

How Do You Successfully Argue Self-Defense?

To successfully assert a self-defense claim, individuals may need to provide evidence and testimony supporting their reasonable belief of imminent danger, the proportionality of the force used, and compliance with any applicable legal requirements or limitations. This evidence can include eyewitness accounts, physical evidence, and expert testimony.

Why to Hire a Criminal Defense Lawyer in Your Self-Defense Case

While California’s self-defense laws provide a framework for protecting yourself, navigating the legal system after a self-defense incident can be stressful and confusing. The prosecution may have a different perspective on the events; even a seemingly clear-cut case can become complicated.

An experienced criminal defense attorney can represent your best interests throughout the criminal justice. They understand the intricacies of self-defense law and can ensure your rights are upheld. Your lawyer’s knowledge and experience can be the difference between a positive outcome and facing serious consequences in a self-defense case.

Arrested for Self-Defense? Call Morris Law Today

Self-defense laws in California are designed to protect individuals while maintaining public safety. Knowing your rights and the limitations of these laws can help navigate complex situations, but you could still face charges.

If you or someone you know has been involved in a self-defense incident in California, contact Morris Law today. Our team will evaluate the unique circumstances of your case, advise you on the best course of action, and aggressively advocate in your defense.

Call 510-225-9955 or contact us today to schedule a free case consultation.