Understanding California’s Self Defense Laws

No one wants to be the victim of a violent crime. For that reason, California law recognizes the need to protect yourself and others from harm. This right is known as self-defense. It can be used as a legal defense to actions that would otherwise be considered criminal, including assault, battery, and even murder.

If self-defense is properly used, it could clear you of any wrongdoing. However, note that there are several key elements that must be proved in order for this defense to be successful.

Self-Defense and Defense of Others Overview

Now, for self-defense to apply, you must have believed that you were in imminent danger of physical harm. This means that your immediate use of force must have been necessary for the situation. Further, you are not allowed to use any more force than is necessary to protect yourself. For example, if someone goes to punch you, it wouldn’t be reasonable to pull a gun on them.

Note that the law only allows you to use deadly force when there is a threat of deadly force. However, there is no duty to retreat in California. In other words, if someone threatens you with deadly force you may stand your ground and defend yourself. This is true even if you have the opportunity to run away.

Defense of Property and Others

Under state law, you also have the right to defend other people. So long as the person you were defending was justified in using force, you may use the same amount of force in protecting them. In addition, self-defense also applies to property. This includes personal property, such as your wallet, as well as real property, like your house.

Remember, in all situations involving self-defense, the fundamental question is whether the force used was reasonable. So, in terms of protecting property, you would need to ask yourself whether someone else in your situation would have believed that the amount of force you used in the situation was necessary to defend your belongings.

Self-Defense for the Initial Aggressor

It’s important to note that even individuals that initiate the use of force can still claim self-defense in certain situations. For example, let’s assume that you started a fight and then made it clear to the other person that you wanted to stop. If they had an opportunity to stop but continued to attack you, you would be justified in using a reasonable amount of force to protect yourself. 

But, remember, if the force you use goes beyond merely protecting yourself, you would be considered the aggressor again and would not be able to claim self-defense. Because these cases can be complicated, it can be helpful to reach out to a qualified attorney that can evaluate the specific facts of your case and advise you on how to proceed.  

Reasonableness of Belief that Force was Necessary

As discussed, issues of self-defense often turn on the reasonableness of your actions in light of the circumstances. This means that it’s not important if your use of force was actually necessary to protect yourself.

Now, this standard can seem vague and confusing. But, state law does provide some guidance to help determine what is considered reasonable behavior under the circumstances. Specifically, the law looks at things like:

  •  The relationship between you and the other person,

  • The words spoken to you, and

  • The body language of the aggressor.

For instance, take a situation where someone you didn’t know pointed an unloaded gun at you and began to make angry threats. Now, in this situation, you had no reason to believe the gun was unloaded. In this case, it would be reasonable for you to shoot the person to protect yourself, even though there was no actual threat.

Imperfect Self-Defense and Voluntary Manslaughter 

In cases where your use of deadly force was not reasonable under the circumstances, you may still have a legal defense available to you. This is referred to as “imperfect self-defense,” and it could result in your offense being downgraded from murder to voluntary manslaughter. Imperfect self-defense might apply, for example, if you were involved in a fight started by another person where you used more force than necessary and ended up killing them in the process.

Note that this defense will not completely exonerate you of the charges. However, voluntary manslaughter carries less severe penalties than murder. Specifically, if you are convicted of this crime, you could face 3 to 11 years behind bars, compared to 15 to 25 years for murder.

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