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“Self-defense” is a legal term that is common to many of us. We all recognize the term “self-defense” to allow a person to defend themselves. Most people have watched television shows where a person avoids criminal responsibility for hurting another person through the defense of self-defense. However, there is much more to understanding the legal implications and mechanics of self-defense than can be ascertained from a sixty-minute police drama on Tuesday nights.
In this blog, I will provide you with a history of self-defense, the mechanics of self-defense, recent developments with the passage of Stand Your Ground laws, and how it could be used to successfully defend a criminal charge in 2021.
History Of Self-Defense – The use of self-defense to avoid criminal responsibility dates all the way back to Biblical times. Exodus 22:3 of the ESV Bible permitted the use of deadly force to protect one’s person and home by writing: “If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him.” It was in this moment of Old Testament history that the law first accepted the notion of self-defense in protecting a person’s own life. Since then, self-defense has evolved into a legally recognizable privilege that “justifies” a person in killing/injuring another without incurring any legal responsibility. The concept of “privilege” is that a person is legally excused from certain otherwise criminal culpability because of the circumstances surrounding a particular act. In the case of self-defense, the privilege excuses a person who intentionally kills another in the process of protecting themself. (Self-defense is no longer recognized as a valid defense or privilege to use deadly force to protect one’s property, and has not for a long time).
Throughout modern history, a person has only been allowed to use deadly force to defend himself when confronted with an imminent threat to his life or great bodily harm. The basic tenet of self-defense is that a person has a right to defend their person from an assault by another person. Although self-defense frequently can be a defense to a non-life-threatening assault or even domestic violence, our focus is on how it applies in the context of the intentional killing of another – or a “homicide.” Michigan Law has a long history of permitting a person whose life was being threatened to kill another person in self-defense. People v. Heflin, 434 Mich. 482, 502-503, 456 N.W.2d 10 (1990). In Heflin, the Michigan Supreme Court recognized that a person who intentionally kills another person commits a justifiable homicide — meaning he would face no criminal responsibility for the killing. Thus, under Heflin a defendant who honestly and reasonably believed he was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm could intentionally use deadly force to protect himself. Put differently, if an actor did not have an honest or reasonable belief he was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm, then he could not prevail on a claim of self-defense under Heflin. Importantly, in self defense cases the actor is allowed to be wrong about whether he was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm, provided that mistaken belief was reasonable.
A central question to self-defense by Heflin is whether deadly force was necessitated in a particular situation. If the person could have avoided using deadly force, then by definition there was no necessity and the actor would not be justified in the killing of another person. This is commonly known throughout American jurisprudence as the “duty to retreat”. The Michigan Supreme Court has long held a person is not justified in using deadly force if he can safely retreat. People v. Riddle, 467 Mich. 116, 118; 649 N.W.2d 30 (2002).
The only exception to the duty to retreat before using deadly force was under the “castle doctrine”. People v. Riddle, 467 Mich. 116, 118, 649 N.W.2d 30, 34 (2002). The castle doctrine permits one who is within his home to exercise deadly force even if an avenue of safe retreat is available. Id. The castle doctrine eliminates a homeowner’s duty to retreat before using deadly force to protect himself.
The Self Defense Act – The Self Defense Act, or “Stand Your Ground” law, was passed by the Michigan Legislature in 2006. The SDA removed a person’s duty to retreat before using deadly force to protect his person even when outside of their home. Until the passage of the Self Defense Act in 2006, a person had a duty to retreat before the privilege of self-defense would justify him in using deadly force to protect his person.
According to the Self-Defense Act, a person needs only satisfy two requirements to be justified in using deadly force to protect himself: (1) not be committing a crime; and, (2) have an honest belief that he will suffer imminent death or great bodily harm. MCL 780.972. The SDA did not alter or change the remaining common-law elements of self-defense.
Application Of Self-Defense – Consider the following: Bill is walking down a city street when a man jumps in front of him with a knife. The man threatens Bill by saying “give me your wallet or I will stab you”. Bill has a clear path to safely retreat but instead pulls out his legally possessed gun and shoots the man causing his death. Bill is charged with murder because the man died. During the criminal proceedings, Bill’s attorney claims his client acted in self-defense.
The first consideration relevant to analysis of self defense in our hypo is to understand the burden of proof. In Michigan, the prosecution bears the burden of disproving the common law defense of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. People v. Dupree, 486 Mich. 693, 696, 788 N.W.2d 399, 401 (2010). Stated another way, once the defendant injects the issue of self-defense and satisfies the initial burden of producing some evidence from which a jury could conclude that the elements necessary to establish a defense of self-defense exist, then the prosecution bears the burden of proof to exclude the possibility that the killing was done in self-defense. Id.
Thus, if we analyze the fact pattern under common law self-defense, if the prosecution would have introduced evidence that Bill could have safely retreated, then it is likely that Bill would be convicted of murder. However, under the Self Defense Act, whether Bill could have retreated is irrelevant – the prosecution would have to prove (beyond a reasonable doubt) that Bill lacked an honest belief he would suffer immediate death or great bodily harm when he shot the man. The likelihood of the prosecution successfully disproving Bill’s claim of self-defense is much more difficult under the SDA’s stand your ground allowance.
Considerations For You – Although the above example may seem like an elementary exercise, the ability to properly analyze the elements of an underlying crime and the possibility of self-defense as a defense are necessary. A good defense attorney must understand your situation and what possible theories could lead to an acquittal or dismissal of charges against you.
If you are facing a charge for homicide, a basic assault, or even domestic violence, then self-defense may be your best defense. Still, there are a number of considerations you should make after proper consultation with an experienced defense attorney. If you are facing criminal charges, then there is no substitute for expert legal counsel. Give yourself the defense you need and deserve. Call Mark A. Satawa!