Here are five key things to know about California self-defense laws:
- You can use proportional force in self-defense when you reasonably believe that you are in imminent danger of physical harm and that force is necessary to stop it.
- You can use deadly force if you reasonably believe it is necessary to stop an imminent danger of death or serious injury.
- California is a stand your ground state, so there is no duty to retreat from a fight even if you could have easily escaped.
- Under California’s Castle Doctrine, you can use deadly force against an intruder who breaks in.
- California’s self-defense laws apply to defending yourself, other people, and your property.
Self-defense serves as a legal defense to many criminal offenses, including:
- murder (PC 187) or manslaughter (PC 192),
- mayhem (PC 203),
- domestic battery (PC 243(e)(1)),
- assault with a deadly weapon (PC 245(a)(1)), and
- simple battery (PC 242) or simple assault (PC 240).
- killing a man with a gun to prevent a rape
- kicking a burglar
- pushing an attacker down a staircase
Our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys will answer the following frequently-asked-questions about California self-defense laws.
- 1. What is self-defense?
- 2. When can it be used as a legal defense?
- 3. What about the defense of others and property?
- 4. What is the Castle Doctrine?
- 5. Can I use deadly force?
- 6. California self-defense law applied to specific crimes
1. What is self-defense?
Self-defense is a type of affirmative defense that you may use to negate a California criminal charge.
The defense asserts that:
- you used force or violence against someone else, but
- did so to protect yourself, your property, or another person.
In using an affirmative defense, you essentially:
- admit that you broke the law,
- but that it was justifiable under the circumstances.
2. When can it be used as a legal defense?
You legally acted in self-defense under California state law if:
- you reasonably believed that you were in “imminent danger” of suffering bodily injury,
- you reasonably believed that the immediate use of force was necessary to defend against that reasonable fear of imminent peril, and
- you used no more force than was reasonably necessary to defend against that danger.1
If the above are true, then you have a valid legal defense and are not liable for a crime.
2.1. Imminent danger
Self-defense only works as a legal defense in California if you believed that you were in imminent danger.
A danger is considered imminent when there is an immediate or present threat. This is when a threat is happening right before you. An imminent danger cannot relate to something that may or may not happen in the future.2
Example: Jerome tells Marcos that he is going to beat him up the next day. Marcos hits him in the face. Marcos cannot claim he was defending himself because the threat of danger was not happening before him. It pertained to a future event.
2.2. Reasonable belief that a threat exists
To successfully claim self-defense in California, you must “reasonably” believe that a threat exists. Note that a belief can be reasonable even if it is not correct.
Whether a belief is objectively reasonable is a “question of fact” for the judge or jury, who must consider:
- all of the circumstances that were known to you, and
- how a reasonable person would react in the same situation.3
Example: Maria walks home during the day in a crowded neighborhood. A man approaches her and asks her for “a moment of her time.” She then kicks him. Maria would not be able to argue she was defending herself because any belief that a threat existed would not be reasonable.
Note that when determining reasonableness, a judge or jury can consider whether you knew that the person you fought back against threatened or harmed another in the past.4
Also note that people who experience mental health issues may encounter challenges in convincing others that their belief about an imminent danger is justified. For example, someone who hears voices or suffers from extreme paranoia might act to defend themselves and harm others. However, a rational person under similar circumstances may not perceive any threat at all.
2.3. No more force than necessary
In California, you can only use enough force in defending yourself that is reasonably necessary under the circumstances. This means an amount of force that a reasonable person would believe is necessary under the circumstances.5
If you used more force than was proportionate, you did not act in lawful defense of yourself.6
Someone who has been threatened or harmed by a person in the past is justiﬁed in acting more quickly or taking greater self-defense measures against that person.7
Example: It is unreasonable for Jenny to stab Doug when he tells her that he hates her. The stabbing is more force than was reasonably necessary.
Though the stabbing could be reasonable if Doug is her husband, had committed spousal abuse and domestic battery in the past, and was intoxicated and considered a mean drunk.
2.4. No duty to retreat
California is a “stand your ground state.”
Therefore you do not have to retreat, or run away, in order to lawfully claim self-defense. This is so even if safety could have been achieved by retreating.8
Example: A drunk bar patron with brass knuckles approaches Nick and tells him he is going to “crush him” if he does not leave. Here, Nick can stand his ground and use force even though he could easily leave the bar and walk away from the harm.
2.5. Initial aggressor
In California, you can assert self-defense if you were the aggressor in a fight only if:
- you made a good faith effort to stop fighting and indicated this to the other person, or
- you initially attacked with non-deadly force, and the other person responded with deadly force.9
Example: Greg picks a fight by pushing Tom, who responds by stabbing Greg. Here, Greg can probably pull out a gun and shoot Tom in self-defense since Tom “upgraded” the fight by using deadly force with the stab.
3. What about defense of others and property?
You can use self-defense as a California legal defense when you defend
- another person (“defense of another”), or
- your property.
The following must be true for this defense to work with regards to defending another person:
- you reasonably believed that the other person was in imminent danger,
- you reasonably believed you needed to use force to prevent the danger, and
- you used no more force than necessary.10
The following must be true for this defense to work with regards to defending property:
- there was an imminent threat of harm to your property, and
- you used reasonable force to defend your property.11
4. What is the Castle Doctrine?
Under California’s Castle Doctrine, there is no duty to retreat from an intruder in your home. You can confront them and chase them away.
The Castle Doctrine even allows you to use deadly force inside your home when an intruder uses force to break in.12 Under Penal Code 198.5 PC, you are presumed to have a reasonable fear of imminent harm when someone breaks into your home.13
Example: In the middle of the night, a burglar shatters John’s windows and enters the living room. John can legally fire his handgun at the burglar in self-defense or in defense of someone else in his home even if the burglar had no intent to kill anyone.
5. Can I use deadly force in self-defense?
In California, you are legally justified in using deadly force in self-defense under certain circumstances.
For self-defense to work as a legal defense when you killed someone, you must show:
- you reasonably believed that you, or someone else, was in imminent danger of being killed, suffering great bodily injury, or being the victim of a forcible and atrocious crime,
- you reasonably believed that you needed to use deadly force to prevent the danger from happening, and
- you used no more force than was reasonably necessary to keep the harm from occurring.14
Example: Isabelle is walking home one night when a stranger jumps her, starts fondling her, and says she is going to “enjoy this.” It is likely justifiable self-defense if Isabelle kills him because she feared being raped.
Note that you can use deadly force in self-defense even if you were the original aggressor. This is provided you tried (but ultimately failed) to end the fight.15
5.1. Can police use deadly force?
Yes, but only if deadly force is necessary. Courts consider not only the officer’s actions but also the victim’s actions before the deadly blow. If police kill unnecessarily, they can face criminal charges.16
6. California self-defense law applied to specific crimes
6.1. Battery, Penal Code 242 PC
Battery is the unlawful touching of another person. California’s self-defense laws allow you to act in self-defense of a battery if you believe you are in imminent danger, even if you do not fear imminent bodily harm.17
The slightest touching can be unlawful if it is done in a rude or angry way.18 The touching does not even have to cause pain or injury for you to act in self-defense.19
Note also that the legal doctrine of “transferred intent” applies in California self-defense/battery cases. This doctrine says that:
- if you defend against a battery and accidentally injure a third party,
- you will not be prosecuted for that injury.20
6.2. Resisting arrest, Penal Code 148 PC
Resisting arrest is when you:
- delay, or
an officer while they are performing their official duties.
You will not be convicted of this crime if you acted in defense of yourself to an unlawful police procedure. Further, you will not be charged if you resisted against excessive force.
Note though that you will be charged in California under PC 148 if an officer used excessive force in response to your unjustified resistance.
6.3. Domestic violence
California domestic violence laws make it a California crime to harm, or threaten to harm, an intimate partner. Common charges include:
- Penal Code 243(e)(1), domestic battery, and
- Penal Code 273.5, inflicting corporal injury on an intimate partner.
Self-defense in these situations is justified when:
- there is imminent danger, and
- the force used in response to the assailant is reasonable.
The typical situation is when one spouse threatens to harm, or does harm, the other spouse, and the first party uses force in response. Self-defense is also used to protect children from harm by a spouse.
6.4. Murder, Penal Code 187 PC
Murder is the intentional killing of another with malice aforethought, defined as
- an unlawful intention to kill or
- acting with a reckless disregard for human life.
If you are in imminent danger of being killed, you may take whatever measures that are necessary to prevent the killing. Deadly force is obviously expected and will be excused if reasonable and not excessive to prevent harm.
California’s Flannel Doctrine – also referred to as “imperfect self-defense” – applies when you kill another person based on an honest but unreasonable belief in the need to use deadly force in self-defense.
To go into effect, the Flannel Doctrine requires a showing that:
- you believed that you were in imminent peril of being killed or suffering great bodily injury,
- you believed that the immediate use of deadly force was necessary to defend yourself, and
- at least one of these beliefs was unreasonable.21
The doctrine is not really a defense per se, although it applies like a partial defense. A jury finding that you acted in imperfect self-defense results in a charge being reduced from:
- murder (with a possible life in prison sentence)
- to voluntary manslaughter (which carries three to eleven years in prison).
Example: Amy and Mark get into a minor traffic accident. Mark apologizes and reaches into the glovebox for his insurance information. Amy believes he is reaching for a weapon and shoots and kills him with her concealed weapon.
If Amy asserts she was defending herself, she will likely lose since her fear was unreasonable. However, the concept of imperfect defense could potentially lessen a murder charge to voluntary manslaughter.
For representation with a criminal defense case…
For additional guidance or to discuss your case with a criminal defense attorney, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group. Our California criminal defense lawyers offer consultations. Also see our article on 5 legal self-defense weapons in California.
For a similar topic under Nevada law, please see our article on: “Nevada Self-defense Laws.”
For a similar topic under Colorado law, please see our article on: “Colorado Self-Defense & Make My Day Laws.”
- CALCRIM No. 3470. Criminal jury instructions. See also People v. Humphrey (1996) 13 Cal.4th 1073 for more on California self-defense laws. See also People v. Pineda (2022) .
- People v. Aris (1989) 215 Cal.App.3d 1178.
- CALCRIM No. 3470. See also People v. Humphrey, supra; and, People v. Clark (1982) 130 Cal.App.3d 371.
- CALCRIM No. 3470. See also People v. Pena (1984) 151 Cal.App.3d 462; and, People v. Miniﬁe (1996) 13 Cal.4th 1055.
- CALCRIM No. 3470.
- See same. See also People v. Humphrey, supra..
- See same.
- CALCRIM No. 3470. See also People v. Hughes (1951) 107 Cal.App.2d 487; and, People v. Hatchett (1942) 56 Cal.App.2d 20 for more on stand your ground laws.
- CALCRIM 3471 Mutual Combat or Initial Aggressor.
- CALCRIM 505 – Justifiable Homicide.
- CALCRIM 3476 – Right to Defend Real or Personal Property
- California Penal Code 198.5 PC.
- See same.
- CALCRIM 505. See also William English, 2021 National Firearms Survey, Georgetown McDonough School of Business Research Paper No. 3887145 (July 16, 2021)(“Consistent with other recent survey research, the survey finds an overall rate of adult firearm ownership of 31.9%, suggesting that in excess of 81.4 million Americans aged 18 and over own firearms. The survey further finds that approximately a third of gun owners (31.1%) have used a firearm to defend themselves or their property, often on more than one occasion, and it estimates that guns are used defensively by firearms owners in approximately 1.67 million incidents per year.”)
- CALCRIM 3471.
- California Penal Code 835a; California Assembly Bill 392 (2019); Anita Chabria, “Newsom signs ‘Stephon Clark’s Law,’ setting new rules on police use of force“, Los Angeles Times, (August 19, 2019).
- People v. Myers, (1998) 61 Cal.App.4th 328.
- CALCRIM No. 3470.
- See same.
- People v. Mathews, (1979) 91 Cal.App.3d 1018.
- People v. Por Ye Her (2010) 181 Cal.App.4th 349. See also People v. Thomas (2023) .