Every crime in California is defined by a specific code section. Our attorneys explain the law, penalties and best defense strategies for every major crime in California.
In California, it can be legal to kill someone in self-defense. However, it is only a justifiable homicide if the person had a reasonable belief that there was an imminent danger of being killed or seriously hurt, that deadly force was the only way to prevent it, and used an appropriate level of force. Otherwise, the homicide can be manslaughter or murder.
Yes, the use of lethal force is legal in self-defense in the state of California, so long as certain conditions are met. Those conditions are:
The defendant’s belief that there was imminent danger and that deadly force was necessary both have to be reasonable. In determining whether a belief was reasonable or not, all of the circumstances surrounding the killing, as they were known to the defendant, are relevant.2 This includes whether the defendant knew that the person had a history of violence.3 A belief is a reasonable one if a reasonable person in a similar situation, and with similar knowledge to the defendant’s, would have reached the same belief.4 The belief can be reasonable, even if the information the defendant relied on turned out to be false.5
If the defendant acted on his or her belief that there was imminent danger and that the immediate use of deadly force was necessary, but his or her belief is deemed to be an objectively unreasonable belief, it is an imperfect self-defense. The killing would be unlawful, but done without malice aforethought. The defendant cannot be liable for murder, but can be convicted of manslaughter or second-degree murder.6
The danger also has to be imminent. Fear of future harm, no matter how strong the fear or the seriousness of the harm, does not suffice, even if it would happen in the near future.7
For example: Denise is in a relationship where there is a lot of domestic violence. Her husband beats her, says that he did not think that he would let her live until the morning, and then falls asleep. Thinking that he would kill her when he woke up, Denise gets a handgun and kills him in his sleep. A California appellate court deemed this to not be adequately imminent for a self-defense case.8
Even if adequately imminent, it still has to be a reasonable fear of imminent harm.
The imminent danger has to be of death or of a great bodily injury. A great bodily injury means a significant or substantial physical injury. It has to be more than a minor or moderate harm.9
Forcible and atrocious crimes are those that generally create a fear of death or serious bodily harm. They include:
Some offenses, like burglary, may be considered an atrocious crime depending on the circumstances.11
The amount of force used in self-defense cannot be more than was reasonably necessary. This often prevents a person from, for example, using lethal force to kill an unarmed person and then claiming self-defense. Instead, defendants must respond to the initial aggressor with reasonable force.
If successful, self-defense justifies the killing. Justified killings are different from excusable homicides. Excusable homicides are those that were:
Importantly, it is up to the prosecutor pursuing the murder charge to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the killing was not justified.12
Yes, California recognizes the Castle Doctrine in the state’s self-defense law.
The Castle Doctrine applies when the defendant uses self-defense in his or her own home against an intruder. It presumes that the defendant reasonably feared death or a great bodily injury. The intruder cannot be a family member or a household member.13
Generally, the Castle Doctrine allows defendants to kill or hurt intruders in their home if:
Getting the legal advice of a criminal defense attorney can help defendants understand their rights under California’s Castle Doctrine.
Yes, California gives people the right to stand their ground. Defendants are not obligated to retreat before claiming self-defense, even if retreating would have led to safety.15
Yes, people can use deadly force in defense of a third party in California. The rules for the defense of others is the same as that for self-defense. The defendant still needs to:
The use of lethal force in self-defense is a common legal defense to the following criminal charges:
People facing charges for these violent crimes should strongly consider establishing an attorney-client relationship with a criminal defense lawyer from a reputable law firm. With the help of a lawyer, defendants can raise this affirmative defense and persuade the jury to find them not guilty.
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.
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