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Can I claim “self-defense” if I actually started the fight?
California self-defense laws allow people to use reasonable force (and even violence) to protect themselves against an attacker. An attacker’s threats, though, must be immediate and a person must use no more force than is reasonably necessary to thwart the attack. But what if someone starts a fight? Can he claim self-defense as a legal defense against criminal charges?
1. What is self-defense?
Self-defense is a type of legal defense that an accused may use to negate a criminal charge.
A defendant is said to have legally acted in self-defense under California state law if he/she:
reasonably believed that he/she was in “imminent danger” of suffering bodily injury,
reasonably believed that the immediate use of force was necessary to defend against that reasonable fear of imminent peril, and
used no more force than was reasonably necessary to defend against that danger.1
Self-defense serves as a legal defense to many criminal offenses, including:
Maybe. Consider, for example, the scenario where Sam walks up and starts punching Robbie. Robbie starts hitting back. Sam continues his attack, claiming now that he’s defending himself. Can he do this?
Well, first of all, Sam’s initial attack was clearly not self-defense. He could likely get prosecuted for assault and battery for his initial acts. But once Robbie starts fighting back, does the defense of self-defense kick in?
California law allows self-defense by an aggressor, but only if two conditions are met. First, Sam must actually and in good faith try tostop fighting. Second, he must communicate to Robbie that he wants to stop (or has stopped) fighting.
If Sam does both of these and Robbie continues to fight, Sam can now fight back in lawful self-defense.In the end, however, the system defers to prosecutors, judges, and juries to determine whether a use of force or violence was justified by analyzing all of the facts of a case. While California self-defense law provides guidance in the form of rules and conditions, common sense and moral judgment will ultimately be the deciding factors. (Also see our article, Is Cyber-harassment a crime in California?
A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.