Imperfect self-defense is a legal concept that arises in California murder cases. It applies when the accused kills another person based on an honest but unreasonable belief in the need to use deadly force in self-defense or defense of others.
A jury finding that the accused acted in imperfect self-defense results in the charge being reduced from murder to voluntary manslaughter. Instead of facing life in California State Prison for a murder conviction, the accused faces manslaughter sentencing, which is only 3 to 11 years in state prison.
The question is whether the accused’s belief about the need to use deadly force was a reasonable belief. Would a reasonable person have acted the same way? If so, the defense is complete or “perfect” and warrants an outright acquittal. But if the defendant’s belief was unreasonable, the defense is incomplete, or imperfect. The accused is still guilty of a serious crime — but not murder.
The California Supreme Court case of People v. Flannel in 1979 allows for this defense in appropriate murder cases.
Strategies to claim imperfect self-defense include showing that:
- The accused’s beliefs, if true, would have justified the act;
- The victim’s aggression was unlawful; and
- The accused’s circumstances and background help to explain their actions.
To help you better understand the law of imperfect self-defense, our California criminal defense attorneys explain the following:
- 1. What is “imperfect self-defense” in homicide cases?
- 2. What does the case of “People v. Flannel” have to do with imperfect self-defense?
- 3. What are strategies for asserting imperfect self-defense?
- 4. What are the penalties or consequences of successfully claiming imperfect self-defense?
Imperfect self-defense refers to a particular type of voluntary manslaughter. It is not really a defense per se, although the doctrine applies like a partial defense.1 In fact, the term refers to a homicide where the accused actually believes their deadly act was necessary and reasonable in the circumstances, but it was not. A reasonable person in their shoes would not have acted in the same way.
A person acts in imperfect self-defense in California where:
- The person believes themselves or others to be in imminent peril of being killed or suffering great bodily injury;
- The person believes that the immediate use of deadly force is necessary to defend against the danger; and
- At least one of these mistaken beliefs is unreasonable.2
For instance, the accused may have felt that their life was in danger from another person.
Example: Amy is driving on a roadway. Another car cuts her off, and the two exchange rude looks and gestures. The other driver starts reaching around in their vehicle. Amy believes that the person is grabbing for a gun, and she fears for her life. She grabs her own firearm and shoots at the other driver, who is killed.
The doctrine of imperfect self-defense could apply if one or both of Amy’s beliefs were unreasonable:
First, a jury may be convinced Amy truly thought the person was reaching for a gun to harm her. And the jury may be convinced that this belief had no reasonableness. Element 1 above was not reasonable, and thus the doctrine applies.
Second, a jury might instead find Amy’s thoughts about the danger to be reasonable. While this is unlikely in this example, the doctrine would still apply if she acts with violence unreasonably. A reasonable person may have simply driven away safely rather than use an available firearm. Then Element 2 above was not reasonable, and the doctrine still applies.
Of course, both of Amy’s beliefs — about the threat of danger and about the need to use violence — may have been unreasonable.3
When an imperfect self-defense case goes to trial, the judge would provide the jury with a jury instruction about the doctrine and voluntary manslaughter. In reality, it is relatively rare for a jury to find that imperfect self-defense applies in homicide cases.
In all self-defense cases, the accused must believe that he is in “imminent danger of death or great bodily harm.4 Imminent means “right now.” If the perceived danger is not immediate, use of a deadly amount of force is not justified. The peril might be prevented or avoided.
Example: Erica is in an on-again, off-again relationship with Juan. The two argue often, and Juan has a long history of physically abusing her. Juan leaves Erica’s house one day on his motorcycle after an argument. As he leaves Erica fires several gunshots after him, damaging his motorcycle.
Juan comes back a different day to remove his property from Erica’s home. They argue again, and as Juan leaves through the front door, Erica shoots him in the head. If a jury believes that Erica was genuinely but unreasonably fearful for her life at the time, the doctrine would apply. If a jury does not believe that Erica was actually fearful for her life at the time, then a murder charge would apply.5
When the accused believes there is a threat of imminent peril, and reasonable people would agree, complete self-defense applies. When the accused actually but unreasonably believes the same thing, imperfect self-defense applies.
In cases of imperfect self-defense, two things happen.
First, a claim of complete or “perfect” self-defense cannot be successful. The accused’s behavior was not objectively reasonable. Second, the act also is not murder because in California murder requires “malice aforethought.” And when one actually believes their deadly act to be necessary to prevent imminent peril, “malice” is not present.6
The result is known as “imperfect” self-defense. Criminal guilt remains, and in California, this is one of several forms of voluntary manslaughter.
The People v. Flannel case from 1979 firmly established the rule in California.7 The Supreme Court of California recognized that imperfect self-defense is a general principle of law that should be considered in all relevant cases.
In Flannel, two men had a history of mutual hostility, including the defendant’s dating the elder man’s common law daughter. Violence between them had occurred in the past. One morning, the defendant, Flannel, had been drinking alcohol and hanging out with friends. Daniels, the elder man, arrived at the scene.
Despite others urging him to leave, Flannel got his gun from the trunk of his car. He approached Daniels and asked him what was “happening.” Daniels recommended that Flannel leave.
Daniels was leaning on his vehicle and then backed away. He waived Flannel away with his left hand while keeping his right near a pocket where he was known to carry a knife.
Flannel followed, provoking Daniels to go ahead and pull his knife. Flannel then drew his gun, however, and fired a deadly shot at Daniels in the head. As Daniels fell, a switchblade knife flew in the air and landed on the ground where it popped open. No one had observed the knife in Daniels’ hand.
The defendant Flannel waited at the scene for a police officer to arrive. He was arrested and convicted by a jury of murder.8
The California Supreme Court reviewed the trial conviction. The court recognized that until that time imperfect self-defense had not been a clear doctrine of law in California. But the court took the opportunity to affirm that it was a general principle of law and that it should be recognized formally.
The defense attorney for Flannel did not raise the issue of imperfect self-defense. The trial court also did not raise the issue on its own for the jury either. The California Supreme Court reviewed whether the trial judge was wrong not to do so.
The court held that the trial judge’s decision was valid at the time, since imperfect self-defense was not clearly established. The court affirmed Flannel’s murder conviction.9
The California Supreme Court in Flannel officially recognized and clarified the doctrine. It noted that in future cases (those after 1979) other courts in California should raise the issue whenever evidence supports it.10 The doctrine now has a long history of precedent in California, meaning acceptance by courts.11
Strategies for asserting the doctrine of imperfect self-defense include meeting its legal requirements and explaining the accused’s side of the story.
Oftentimes, the accused will be arguing for complete self-defense. Imperfect self-defense is presented as a backup option. This is useful where the jury finds the accused’s beliefs or acts to be unreasonable but not amounting to the mental state necessary for murder.
In addition, if jurors are split on the question, the option provides a way for them to “meet in the middle.”
The claim is more likely to be successful when the jury understands the accused’s situation and personal history. And the defense must show key facts and evidence for the partial defense to fit.
A key consideration concerns what the accused believed during the situation. The accused’s beliefs must be able to justify the violence, if the accused’s beliefs had been true. If not, then the accused’s claim for imperfect self-defense would fail.
Example: Roger is having a drink at a bar with a date. The date’s ex-boyfriend shows up. Roger and the ex-boyfriend have a history of fighting. The ex-boyfriend, however, tells Roger he is sorry about their past problems and says he will leave.
Roger believes, instead, that the ex-boyfriend is just trying to get Roger’s guard down. Roger believes the ex-boyfriend is going to turn and take a swing at him. So Roger pulls out a knife and forcibly stabs the ex-boyfriend several times. The ex-boyfriend soon dies from loss of blood.
Here a jury may conclude that Roger actually believed that he was in physical danger. Even if his belief was true, though, his reaction was unreasonably excessive. Using a knife, assault with a deadly weapon, in this situation was not necessary to protect himself from a possible fistfight.
It is also important to show that the accused did not create the violent circumstances. If the accused “started the fight,” this initial aggressor generally loses the possibility of incomplete or complete self-defense.12 However, even if the accused created the original danger, the rule may apply where the victim unreasonably escalated the violence.13
Example: The defendant and another are burglarizing a vehicle. The vehicle’s owner and a friend appear. The vehicle owner and friend chase down the defendant and his accomplice. They begin to seriously assault the accomplice. The defendant uses his gun to shoot and kill the vehicle owner’s friend. Here the defendant started the dangerous circumstances. But he was responding to unlawful aggression by the two attackers, and the rule may apply.14
Example: The defendant had reason to believe that his cousin had raped the defendant’s younger brother. The defendant lures his cousin to an alley with other friends to confront the cousin. Once the defendant tells his cousin why they brought him there, his cousin lunges at the defendant and chokes him. The defendant pulls a gun and shoots his cousin, who dies. In this situation, the jury could potentially find that the rule applies, if they believe that the cousin unlawfully attacked the defendant.15
Example: The defendant and the victim are arguing about a woman. The victim calls the woman a “bitch,” and the defendant punches him. The victim falls over and sits up with a hammer in his hand. The defendant grabs the hammer and hits the victim with it until the victim dies. Here the defendant started the fight. While the victim did grab a hammer after being hit, the jury did not believe that this was unlawful. So the defendant was not permitted to argue for the doctrine.16
There are additional strategies for asserting this doctrine, including but not limited to:
- Explaining the event through the accused’s eyes. If the jury is able to see things from the accused’s perspective, they will better understand and identify with the accused. They can better see both sides of a tense situation.
- Explaining the accused’s unique history. Sometimes unreasonable beliefs go hand-in-hand with people’s life experiences. Even though it may not completely justify their conduct, it can make their actions seem more sympathetic.
- Spreading the responsibility. Homicides often occur because of the actions of multiple people. When the defense shows how others’ behaviors started the incident or caused the fear of peril, less blame is placed on the accused.
A successful imperfect self-defense case in California causes a murder charge to be reduced to voluntary manslaughter.17 Penalties for voluntary manslaughter include a prison sentence of three, six, or 11 years.18
Whether or not the accused is convicted criminally of voluntary manslaughter, consequences also may include civil liability. Lawsuits by the family of a murder victim in California can result in awards of significant monetary damages. If found liable, the accused may be responsible for those damages, such as:
- Medical bills,
- Funeral expenses,
- Loss of the victim’s companionship and financial support, and
- Punitive damages
Call us for help…
If you or a loved one is charged with homicide in California, and you are looking to hire an attorney for representation, we invite you to contact our criminal law firm Shouse Law Group. We can provide legal advice in the office or by phone.
We also represent families of victims who need help seeking restitution or civil damages in a California wrongful death lawsuit or survival action.
Contact us to discuss your criminal case in confidence with a California criminal defense attorney.
- People v. Manriquez, (2005) 37 Cal. 4th 547 (“not an affirmative defense”). See CALCRIM 571.
- People v. Por Ye Her, (Ct. App. 2009) 181 Cal. App. 4th 349 (“unreasonableness of either belief would be sufficient to transform perfect self-defense into imperfect self-defense”).
- People v. Oropeza, (Ct. App. 2007) 151 Cal. App. 4th 73 (there was too little evidence that the accused feared for their life to permit the jury to review the doctrine).
- Note 1 (“Fear of future harm–no matter how great the fear and no matter how great the likelihood of the harm–will not suffice.”)
- People v. Jaspar, (2002) 98 Cal. App.4th 99.
- People v. Brothers, (Ct. App. 20165) 236 Cal. App. 4th 24 (element of malice is “is negated or at least mitigated”).
- People v. Flannel, (1979) 25 Cal. 3d 668.
- Same. Imperfect self-defense is a lesser-included form of homicide. See People v. Barton, (1995) 12 Cal. 4th 186; In re Christian S. (1994) 7 Cal.4th 768; People v. Uriarte (1990) 223 Cal.App.3d 192.
- See People v. Elmore (2014) 59 Cal. 4th 121.
- People v. Vasquez, (Ct. App. 2006) 136 Cal. App. 4th 1176 (“Imperfect self-defense does not apply if a defendant’s conduct creates circumstances where the victim is legally justified in resorting to self-defense against the defendant. But the defense is available when the victim’s use of force against the defendant is unlawful, even when the defendant set in motion the chain of events that led the victim to attack the defendant.”). People v. Enraca (2012) 53 Cal.4th 735. People v. Minifie (1996) 13 Cal.4th 1055.
- See same.
- People v. Randle, (2005) 35 Cal. 4th 987.
- Note 12.
- People v. Seaton, (2001) 26 Cal.4th 598.
- 192(a) PC.
- Penal Code 193 PC. People v. Lopez (2011) 199 Cal.App.4th 1297. People v. Genovese (2008) 168 Cal.App.4th 817.