Colorado self-defense law allows you to use physical force to defend yourself or others, but under two conditions:
- you reasonably believe it to be necessary to protect against imminent harm, and
- you use only the degree of force appropriate for the situation.
In some cases, this means you can even use deadly force. You do not have to withdraw from an altercation before defending yourself. To have the right of legal self-defense, however, you cannot be the aggressor.
CRS 18-1-704 states that:
“…a person is justified in using physical force upon another person in order to defend himself or a third person from what he reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of unlawful physical force by that other person, and he may use a degree of force which he reasonably believes to be necessary for that purpose.”
- Marianne is being robbed at gunpoint. She grabs the gun and punches the thief.
- Josh sees Nick assaulting Samantha. Josh steps in to defend Samantha by punching Nick.
Self-defense is a very complicated legal defense. Our Denver Colorado criminal defense attorneys can help you show your conduct was justified. In this article, they explain:
- 1. When is self-defense justified in Colorado?
- 2. When can you use force to defend other people?
- 3. What is Colorado’s Make My Day law?
- 4. To what crimes does self-defense apply?
1. When is self-defense justified in Colorado?
Self-defense is a legal defense against a criminal accusation. It quietly admits that you committed the crime. However, it argues that you only did it in order to defend yourself from harm. If successful, self-defense justifies a crime. It means you were only acting out of self-preservation.1 A successful self-defense argument means you are not liable for the crime.
Proving a self-defense case under state law involves showing:
- You reasonably believed that you were about to suffer imminent and unlawful force,
- You reasonably believed that immediate force was required to protect yourself, and
- You used a degree of force that you reasonably believed would be necessary to prevent it.
In some cases, use of deadly force can be required for your self-defense.
People defending themselves in Colorado rarely have to retreat before using force. Instead, they are generally allowed to stand their ground. This is true even if they use lethal force in defense.
However, not all cases of self-defense are justified. Self-defense is not a legal defense if you were the aggressor in the fight. Deadly force also is not an option if you were defending your property, but not yourself. The only exception is if you were trying to prevent an arson.
1.1 How much force can you use?
You can only use as much force as you reasonably believe is necessary to protect yourself.
In many criminal law cases, this means only using as much force as you are being threatened with. However, the degree of force that is justified depends on the situation.
Example: Paul punches George. George takes out a gun and shoots Paul. George may have used too much force for a self-defense argument. The punch did not cause serious bodily injury, so there was no reasonableness to justify using a gun.
1.2 When is deadly force available?
Deadly force can be used in some circumstances for self-defense. You have to reasonably believe that:
- You are in imminent danger of being killed or sustaining great bodily injury,
- The assailant is committing a burglary and is about to use physical force against the occupant, or
- The assailant is committing a kidnapping, robbery, sexual assault, or felony assault.2
Your ability to use deadly force is at its peak if you are in your home. This is Colorado’s “Make My Day” law. It is at its weakest if you are only defending your property, not your person. You can find out more information on the differences between a felony and a misdemeanor here.
1.3 Stand Your Ground law
Colorado follows “Stand Your Ground” law. This law allows you to defend yourself without retreating from a fight, first. It allows people to use reasonable and appropriate force – including deadly force – without withdrawing.3
Unlike Colorado’s “Make My Day” law, Stand Your Ground applies outside the home, as well.
Example: The driver of a car is trying to run Robert over. Robert pulls out his gun and shoots the driver without trying to get out of the way.4
Stand Your Ground can be a defense for people who are trespassing on someone else’s property. However, it only allows trespassers to use self-defense against unlawful force.5 Because property owners can lawfully use force against a trespasser, there are some situations where trespassers cannot claim self-defense.
1.4 What is a reasonable belief?
To prove you were acting in self-defense, you have to show you “reasonably believed” several things:
- You were facing imminent harm,
- You had to use force to defend yourself, and
- The amount of force you used was necessary to prevent the harm.
A reasonable belief is different from a subjective belief:
- A subjective belief is something that only you need to have,
- A reasonable belief is something that other people would have in the same situation.
A big part of a self-defense argument is convincing the jury that they would have done the same thing you did.
Importantly, a reasonable belief can still be wrong, in hindsight.6 You do not need to be absolutely certain that you need to use force to defend yourself. Instead, it is enough to show an apparent necessity.7
Example: David gets thrown out of a Christmas party. He said he was hit in the back of the head and heard a bang as he was pushed out the door. He turns and fires 3 shots into the closed door. These are not reasonable grounds that self-defense was necessary.8
1.5 What if you started or provoked the fight?
If you started an altercation, you can only claim self-defense if:
- You withdraw from the encounter,
- Effectively communicate your intent to withdraw, and
- The other person continues to attack.9
If these 3 things happen, you turn from the initial aggressor into a victim. This allows you to use force in self-defense.10
Additionally, self-defense is not an option if you provoked the fight.11 This prevents people from creating an excuse to use self-defense.12
Example: Clyde provokes a fight by holding a shotgun when he knocks on Ken’s door. When Ken draws his gun to defend himself, Clyde shoots him.
1.6 What if you agreed to fight?
Self-defense is not an option if you agreed to fight.13
Example: Sir William challenges Bertram to a duel. Bertram agrees. Bertram wins the duel by shooting Sit William. Bertram cannot claim self-defense.
1.7 Do you have self-defense rights to defend your property?
You can use force to defend your property. It is still considered self-defense in Colorado. However, you only use force that is reasonable and appropriate to prevent crimes like:
- Unlawful trespassing and unlawful entry,
- Criminal mischief, or
- Criminal tampering.14
Example: Johnny tries snatching Claire’s purse. Claire punches him and sprays Mace in his eyes.
Generally, you cannot use deadly physical force in defense of property.15 You should use a lesser degree of force. You can only use deadly force to protect your property if you are keeping someone from committing arson.
2. When can you use force to defend other people?
The defense of a person other than yourself is very similar to self-defense. You can claim defense of others if you think your intervention is necessary to keep them safe. This usually means you can claim defense of others if they could have claimed self-defense.16
In many cases involving the defense of others, you do not fully know what is going on. The law recognizes this. It allows you to act on how things seem to be, rather than actual knowledge.17
3. What is Colorado’s Make My Day law?
Colorado’s Make My Day law (“force-against-intruders” statute) allows the occupant of a dwelling to use deadly force against an intruder if they reasonably believe the intruder intends to commit a crime or inflict physical force on an occupant “no matter how slight.” Occupants
- have no duty to retreat and
- may “stand their ground” before confronting the intruder, even if there are easy means of escape.18
For the Make My Day law to apply in Colorado, the intruder must have unlawfully entered the home. That does not necessarily mean “breaking in” such as by picking a lot or breaking a window. Merely sneaking in through an unlocked door qualifies as an unlawful entry as long as the intruder was uninvited.
Example: Julie invites Mary over to her house in Denver. They get in a fight, and Julie demands that Mary leave. Mary refuses. Here, Mary did not unlawfully enter the home. Therefore, the Make My Day law does not give Julie the right to use deadly force on her simply for not leaving.
Instead, Julie could call the police to report a trespasser. Or if Mary becomes violent, then Julie could fight back in self-defense, but only to the extent necessary to deflect the threat. Since the Make My Day law does not apply, Julie could not use deadly force unless she reasonably feared Mary would seriously hurt or kill her.
Another requirement for Colorado’s Make My Day law is that the intruder is inside the dwelling. The Make My Day law does not allow an occupant to kill suspected intruders while they are still outside, such as:
- On a porch, balcony, or terrace;
- On top of the roof;
- In the backyard;
- In the common area of an apartment complex;
- In the hallway outside of a hotel room;
- Outside of the front door19
In short, Colorado’s Make My Day law gives people stronger rights to self-defense in their homes than anywhere else. And the Make My Day law permits occupants to kill intruders in all types of
- dwellings, including
- rental apartments,
- trailers, and
- motel rooms.
It does not matter whether the occupant is the homeowner, a tenant, a hotel or Airbnb guest, or a house guest.
Formally entitled The Homeowner Protection Act, the Make My Day law was adopted in Colorado in 1985 under CRS 18-1-704.5. It is Colorado’s version of The Castle Doctrine, a legal principle that people have the right to “absolute safety” while in their homes. Even if the intruder meant no harm, the Make My Day law protects occupants from both criminal and civil liability as long as they reasonably believed the intruder meant to harm.
4. To what crimes does self-defense apply?
Self-defense is a legal defense. It is often invoked to fight criminal charges of violent crimes. If you successfully show that you acted in self-defense, you cannot be liable for these crimes.
4.1 Second-degree murder
Second-degree murder (CRS 18-3-103) is the act of knowingly killing someone else. It is less severe than first-degree murder, which requires premeditation. For second-degree murder, you just need to be aware that your actions are practically certain to cause death.20
If you use deadly force to defend yourself, you could be charged with second-degree murder. If you are able to show that your actions were done in self-defense, you cannot be liable for the crime.
4.2 First-degree assault
If you seriously hurt someone, prosecutors could accuse you of first-degree assault. If you can show that you acted in self-defense, you cannot be liable for the offense.
4.3 Second-degree assault
Second-degree assault (CRS 18-3-203) is the offense of intentionally hurting someone. Unlike first-degree assault, the injuries are not severe.
Self-defense is often an effective legal defense to an accusation that you committed a second-degree assault. If you can show that you only hurt someone to defend yourself or someone else, you cannot be liable for assault in the second degree.
4.4 Domestic violence
In Colorado, domestic violence (CRS 18-6-801) enhances the penalties of other violent crimes. If you commit another crime, like assault, on someone you are in an intimate relationship with, you can be accused of domestic violence.
Self-defense is a common legal argument against a domestic violence charge. Many instances of alleged domestic violence involve fights and violence from both sides. Self-defense involves showing that you were not the aggressor and responded with reasonable force. If successful, you cannot be held liable for a crime of domestic violence.
4.5 Resisting arrest
Self-defense is not a valid defense strategy against a charge of resisting arrest (CRS 18-8-103).
Resisting arrest is the crime of using violence or force against a police officer making an arrest. The arrest has to be made under the color of law.
Self-defense is not an argument against a charge of resisting arrest, even if it is an unlawful one.21 If the arrest is unlawful, you are supposed to comply with the police officer and raise your rights, later.
The only times you can claim self-defense in an arrest situation are when the officer was not acting under the color of law. Police officers who are off-duty or working as private security guards are not acting under the color of the law. If they try to arrest you and you resist, you can argue you were acting in self-defense.22
See our related article about citizen’s arrests in Colorado.
- Vigil v. People, 353 P.2d 82 (Colo. Supreme Court, 1960). A self-defense claim is an affirmative defense, and courts look at what a reasonable person would have done under the circumstances.
- C.R.S. § 18-1-704(2).
- Idrogo v. People, 818 P.2d 752 (Colo. 1991).
- People v. Willner, 879 P.2d 19 (Colo. 1994).
- People v. Toler, 9 P.3d 341 (Colo. 2000).
- Young v. People, 107 P. 274 (Colo. 1910) (“a person…may act on such appearances and defend himself, even to the extent of taking human life when necessary, although it may turn out that the appearances were false, or although he may have been mistaken as to the extent of the real or actual danger”).
- Beckett v. People, 800 P.2d 74 (Colo. 1990).
- People v. Ellis, 30 P.3d 774 (Colo. App. 2001).
- C.R.S. § 18-1-704(3)(b).
- Castillo v. People, 421 P.3d 1141 (Colo. 2018).
- Bush v. People, 16 P. 290 (Colo. 1888) and People v. Willner, Supra.
- People v. Silva, 987 P.2d 909 (Colo. App. 1999).
- C.R.S. subsection 18-1-704(3)(c).
- Colorado Revised Statute § 18-1-706.
- See Bush v. People, Supra (“…while a man may use all reasonable and necessary force to defend his real and personal estate, of which he is in the actual possession, against another who comes to dispossess him without right, he cannot instantly carry his defense to the extent of killing the aggressor. If no other way is open, he must yield, and get himself righted by resort to the law”).
- People v. Silva, Supra.
- People v. Silva, Supra.
- People v. Toler, Supra. See also People v. Rau, (January 10, 2022) 2022 CO 3.
- People v. Cushinberry, 855 P.2d 18 (Colo. App. 1993).
- People v. Gonzales 926 P.2d 153 (Colo. 1996).
- People v. Hess, 687 P.2d 443 (Colo. 1984).
- People in Interest of JJC, 854 P.2d 801 (Colo. 1993).