Even if you have had no contact with the criminal justice system or any legal training, it’s very likely that you’ve heard of the legal defense known as “self-defense.” Like many other issues in law, there is something intuitive about the doctrine of self-defense that most of us have understood since our days on the playground: if a bully attacks you physically, you’re not going to get in trouble if you respond with physical force to defend yourself. After all, you didn’t start the confrontation.
In law, this principle applies when a defendant claims self-defense, but it’s not enough to get up and tell the judge or jury that the other person “started it.” There are many misconceptions about self-defense, and we often hear the same questions from clients who come to us believing (sometimes correctly) that they will be able to claim self-defense in their case. Here are answers to some of the most common questions about self-defense:
How Do I Claim Self-Defense?
Imagine you were involved in a bar fight or a road rage incident that became physical, and you were arrested and charged with assault. You protest to the police and argue that you were simply defending yourself, but the prosecutor decides to proceed with a case against you anyhow. You may be wondering how you can claim self-defense to the court.
Self-defense is what is known as an “affirmative defense.” This means that you, as the defendant, do not dispute the facts alleged by the prosecution (e.g., that you hit the other party), but rather claim that there are additional facts that, if true, justify your use of force.
What Level of Force Can Be Used When Defending Yourself?
Many cases involving self-defense turn on this very question. Under Connecticut’s self-defense law,1 a person who is justified in using force to defend himself or herself may “use such degree of force which he reasonably believes to be necessary for such purpose.” Of course, the question of what a person reasonably believes to be necessary depends on a variety of factors. For example, if a person shoved you, it would be unlikely that a judge or jury would deem it reasonable for you to beat that person to a pulp with a crowbar.
Furthermore, there are often complicated issues regarding identification of the aggressor in a particular situation. Not many confrontations are completely one-sided, and Connecticut law recognizes this fact. The self-defense statute does not allow an initial aggressor to claim self-defense unless he or she withdraws from the conflict and communicates his or her attention to do so, and the other person continues or threatens the use of physical force.
When Can Deadly Force be Used?
The answer to this question is fairly intuitive as well. Connecticut limits the use of deadly force in self-defense to cases in which the person claiming self-defense reasonably believes that the other person is about to use deadly physical force or is inflicting or about to inflict great bodily harm on them. So, to revisit the example above, it is almost impossible to conceive of a situation in which shooting a person would be considered a justifiable response to a shove or punch. On the other hand, if a person attacked you with a knife and you used a gun to protect yourself, it is likely that you could successfully claim self-defense.
Do I need an Attorney to Claim Self-Defense?
In our legal system, you are almost always able to represent yourself in court. The one exception is when a judge determines that you are incompetent to defend yourself. That said, it is highly advisable for anyone considering claiming self-defense (or who is accused of a violent crime, for that matter) to retain an attorney to represent them. The criminal justice system is extremely complicated, and any judicial proceeding is subject to highly technical procedural and substantive laws. As a result, people who choose to represent themselves put themselves at a significant disadvantage.
If you have been accused of a violent crime in Connecticut and believe that you were acting in self-defense, you should call Koffsky & Felsen, LLC as soon as possible. To schedule a case evaluation with a Connecticut criminal defense lawyer, call our office today at 203-935-8835 or contact us online.