- a person has a reasonable belief that the aggressor poses an immediate threat, and
- he or she inflicts no more force than necessary to resist the aggressor’s threat.
Killing someone in Nevada is justifiable only if it is reasonably necessary to repel an imminent threat of death or substantial bodily harm. A “stand your ground” state, Nevada requires no “duty to retreat” before killing in self-defense as long as the person fighting back:
- is not the original aggressor,
- has a right to be in the place where deadly force is used, and
- is not engaging in criminal activity.
In general, Nevada’s “Castle Doctrine” permits people in their homes or vehicles to fatally wound intruders even the intruders had no violent intent.
In this article, our Las Vegas criminal defense lawyers discuss:
- 1. When is self-defense legal?
- 2. Can I kill in self-defense? (Deadly self-defense)
- 3. Can I kill a home intruder? (Defense of property)
- 4. Can I defend someone other than myself? (Defense of others)
- 5. What is imperfect self-defense?
- 6. What crimes can I defend myself against?
- 7. How do I prove self-defense?
1. When is self-defense legal in Nevada?
Nevada law permits the use of force in self-defense in situations where:
- The non-aggressor reasonably believes he/she (or another) is facing an urgent or pressing threat or bodily harm, and
- The non-aggressor uses no more physical force than necessary to deflect the threat. 1
As a “stand your ground” state, Nevada generally gives victims the option of fighting back in self-defense even if they have the opportunity to run away and avoid the conflict. An act of self-defense just has to be reasonable to be lawful. Henderson criminal defense attorney Michael Becker illustrates how self-defense operates in three scenarios:
Example 1: Tom tells John to leave his Henderson home, but John refuses. Tom then puts John in a headlock and leads him out of the house. While trapped in the headlock, John reaches for his knife and stabs Tom in the chest. Tom survives, but the police arrest John for attempted murder with a deadly weapon.
Here, odds are John would not win on self-defense grounds. Even though Tom was the aggressor by putting John in the headlock, the court would probably find that John overreacted with unnecessary physical force. If John had merely bitten or punched Tom to get out of the headlock, John would have a much better case for self-defense. Now the scenario changes slightly:
Example 2: Tom puts John in a headlock and leads him out of Tom’s house. Once outside, Tom lets John go and walks back inside the house. John then turns around, goes back in the house and punches Tom. The police arrest John for battery.
Here, John would not have a viable self-defense claim either. Since Tom had let John go, John was no longer in any imminent physical danger. It does not matter if John honestly believed that he was acting in self-defense . . . the courts would only care about whether his belief was reasonable. This is the final scenario:
Example 3: Tom yells at John, “Look out! I am gonna kick your ass!” and punches him. John punches back harder, causing Tom to fall back and pass out. The police arrest John for battery.
Here, John’s battery charges probably would be dismissed on self-defense grounds. Even if Tom never intended to punch John more than once, John reasonably believed he faced immediate physical harm due to Tom’s verbal threat and subsequent punch. Furthermore, John retaliated using only as much force as necessary to stop Tom.
Predictably, self-defense cases are very fact-specific. Nevada courts look closely at the details of exactly what happened when in order to decide whether the defendant acted reasonably.
2. Can I kill in self-defense? (Lethal self-defense in Nevada)
Yes, but only under certain narrow circumstances. A justifiable homicide (NRS 200.120) in Nevada occurs when all the following conditions are met:
- The danger was urgent and pressing;
- The non-aggressor faced death or major bodily harm;
- A reasonable person in the non-aggressor’s position would also fear for his/her life and safety; and
- The non-aggressor was not merely acting out of revenge. 2
In other words, killing in self-defense is lawful only when the person faces an immediate threat of being killed or seriously injured him/herself. A “bare fear” of being hurt is insufficient to justify killing in self-defense.
Example: Leland is walking home when Zack approaches him, produces a knife, and orders Leland to give him his wallet. Leland responds by grabbing the knife and stabbing Zack to death. In this case, Leland acted in lawful self-defense under Nevada’s stand your ground laws because Zack presented an urgent threat to Leland’s safety, and any reasonable person in Leland’s position would also fear for his/her safety.
If Zack in the above example was not armed, then Leland probably would not have legal justification to kill Zack unless Zack started to aggressively and repeatedly punch Leland.
2.1. Is there a duty to retreat before using deadly force in Nevada?
It depends. A person is not required to try to retreat before using deadly force if the following three conditions are true:
- The person did not start the fight; and
- The person has the right to be at the location where deadly force is used; and
- The person is not otherwise breaking the law at the time deadly force is used. 3
In short, a person has no duty to retreat before fighting back with deadly force as long as the person is not the original aggressor, is not trespassing, and is not in the midst of illegal activity.
Example: Annie and Lee get into an argument while out to dinner. In a fit of rage, Annie takes her steak knife and flies towards Lee. Lee dodges the knife and stabs Annie with his own steak knife. Even though Lee probably could have retreated since they were in a restaurant, Lee broke no law by “standing his ground” and fighting back against the deadly force he reasonably believed Annie was about to inflict.
Specifically, Lee had no duty to retreat because: 1) Annie started the fight; 2) Lee had the right to be at the restaurant, and 3) Lee was not involved in any criminal activity at the time — he was just having dinner. But if Annie and Lee were in the midst of burglarizing a house or cooking meth or other illegal acts, then Lee would have a duty to retreat if Annie tried to kill him.
3. Can I kill a home intruder? (Defense of property in Nevada)
Example: Abe is walking back to his Las Vegas home after getting drunk at a Las Vegas bachelor party. But he tries to get into the home next door owned by Tom because he is too inebriated to realize it is not his house. Meanwhile, Tom wakes up and hears someone trying to break down his door. Tom then shoots his gun through the door, killing Abe. Since Tom was reasonable in believing that a person was trying to break in — which is a felony — Tom was justified under the Castle Doctrine to kill in self-defense.
In the above example, it makes no difference that Abe may have had no intention of hurting anyone. His act of trying to break in the door was sufficient justification for the occupant Tom to kill the intruder.
Note that if Tom’s home was empty at the time, and if Tom was down the street when he saw Abe trying to break in, Tom would not be allowed to kill Abe. That is because the “Castle Doctrine” applies only to occupied homes and vehicles, not empty ones.
4. Can I defend someone other than myself? (Defense of others in Nevada)
Yes. Nevada law draws no distinction between acting in defense of oneself and acting in defense of another.
Example: Hank is sitting on his porch when he sees a pedestrian down the street getting held up by an armed robber. Hank immediately pulls out his gun and shoots the robber dead. The police arrive to investigate and decide not to arrest Hank for murder because he acted in lawful defense of the pedestrian.
In the above example, it is irrelevant that Hank’s own safety was not being harmed, or that Hank was of no relation to the pedestrian. Since the pedestrian was facing an immediate physical threat, Hank was justified in defending him by shooting the robber. In short, all of Nevada’s laws for self-defense apply to “defense of others.” 5
5. What is imperfect self-defense?
An imperfect self-defense is when a person honestly but unreasonably believes he/she was acting in self-defense. Courts do not recognize imperfect self-defense as a valid defense in criminal cases. 6 North Las Vegas criminal defense attorney Neil Shouse provides an illustration:
Example: Miriam’s neighbor stops her in the driveway and threatens to beat her up if her dog goes on his lawn again. Shaken up, Miriam punches him.
In this case, Miriam may have honestly believed that her safety was in danger. But she acted in imperfect self-defense because she was in no imminent harm. Therefore, Miriam would probably face criminal charges for battery for punching her neighbor.
6. What crimes can I defend myself against?
Self-defense can work as a legal defense to any violent crime in Nevada, such as resisting arrest, robbery, and rape. As long as the non-aggressor is reasonably trying to protect him/herself, he/she should not be penalized for hurting or even mortally wounding the aggressor if necessary.
Below is a closer look at how self-defense may play into some other common Nevada crimes:
6.1. Assault and Battery
Victims of the assault or battery are legally allowed to fight back as long as they use proportional force to resist imminent bodily harm:
Example: Ira is angry that Fred has not paid him back yet. After arguing, Ira takes a swing at Fred. Fred ducks and kicks Ira, causing him to fall to the floor. Here, Fred is justified in kicking Ira because kicking Ira is proportional to being punched. So if a Las Vegas Metro police officer arrests Fred for committing battery on Ira, the charge should be dismissed on self-defense grounds.
Had Fred in the above example beat Ira to death or until he sustained severe injuries, Fred would have a harder time claiming self-defense. That is because such a severe beating would not have been proportional to the single punch Ira threw at Fred.
6.2. Battery Domestic Violence
Battery domestic violence (BDV) is defined in Nevada as battery between family, (ex)dating partners, or housemates. Domestic arguments are very common, and in many cases, the person who acted in self-defense gets wrongly charged:
Example: Vanessa is angry at her boyfriend Victor. She starts kicking and punching him, and Victor pushes Vanessa away, causing her to fall and cut her hand. Vanessa calls 911 and claims Victor pushed her. When the police arrive and Victor explains what happens, they decide to arrest Victor for BDV because Vanessa is the only one with visible bruises. But if Victor’s attorney can show the prosecutor that Vanessa struck first and that Victor was merely protecting himself, the charges should be dropped.
Self-defense can sometimes be difficult to prove in “he said/she said” situations. Therefore, evidence such as surveillance video and eyewitnesses become vital to showing that the defendant did not strike first and reacted with proportional force.
As discussed above in questions 2 and 3, Nevada law permits people to kill in self-defense. Justifiable homicide occurs when the defendant reasonably believes he/she (or others) face an immediate or imminent threat of death or substantial bodily harm: 7
Example: Kyla is walking down an empty street when a man appears and pulls a gun on her. Kyla wrests the gun away from him and shoots him dead. The police initially arrest Kyla on murder charges for killing the man. But when they find surveillance video showing that the man threatened Kyla first, all charges are dropped.
If the man in the above example was simply carrying a gun but was not threatening Kyla with the gun, then Kyla would not have the legal justification to kill the man. Or if the man had no gun and simply yelled obscenities at her, Kyla would have no justification to kill — or even touch — the man because her safety was not threatened.
6.3.1 Battered Person’s Syndrome
Normally, deadly self-defense is legal only when the person acting in self-defense is facing an imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm. But if a person suffers from Battered Person’s Syndrome, it may be legal for him/her to kill in self-defense even when the threat is not technically imminent…
Also called Battered Woman’s Syndrome, Battered Person’s Syndrome is a medical condition that compels repeat abuse victims to retaliate and injure or kill their abusers out of self-defense. In many cases, victims do not fight back when they are facing an immediate threat. Instead, they wait until their abuser is asleep or otherwise vulnerable before they strike back.
Having Battered Person’s Syndrome is not by itself a complete defense to homicide charges in Nevada. But it can often come in as evidence of the defendant’s state of mind. If the court finds that a murder defendant suffers from Battered Person’s Syndrome, it may be possible for the charges to be dropped even if the defendant was not facing an immediate threat at the time he/she killed the abuser. 8
6.4. Home Invasion
Home invasion occurs when someone forcibly enters an inhabited dwelling without permission of the lawful occupant or owner. As discussed above in question 3, Nevada’s “Castle Doctrine” generally permits people in their homes or vehicles to kill intruders.
Example: Jessie is asleep in her home when she hears some rustling outside. She looks at the surveillance video through her ADT account and sees a person with a black mask and burglary tools trying to get in the back door. Jessie then takes out her gun and shoots through the door, killing the burglar. When the police arrive and watch the surveillance video, they decide not to arrest Jessie for homicide because the “Castle Doctrine” gave her the legal authority to kill home intruders.
In the above example, it does not matter that Jessie could have escaped out the front door and avoided a conflict altogether. Nevada law gives Jessie the legal right to stand her ground and fight back rather than retreat. 9
7. How do I prove self-defense?
Self-defense is an “affirmative defense” in Nevada state law. This means that the defendant has the initial burden to claim that he/she acted in lawful self-defense. Then once the defendant makes this claim, the burden shifts to the prosecutor to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in accordance with Nevada self-defense laws. 10
Evidence that frequently comes into play in self-defense cases includes eyewitnesses, medical testimony, and video surveillance footage. If adverse witnesses take the stand and give testimony, the defense attorney may be able to impeach their credibility through aggressive cross-examination.
Note that the vast majority of cases never make it to trial. Oftentimes, the prosecutor is willing to plea bargain the charges down to a lesser offense. And if the defense attorney can show the prosecutor that the defendant’s self-defense claim is plausible, the prosecutor may drop the charges completely.
Call a Nevada criminal defense attorney…
If you would like to discuss your case with our Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys for free, call us. We may be able to get your charges reduced or dismissed so your record stays clean. Our law firm serves clients throughout Clark County and Nevada.
For information on California self-defense laws, go to our article on California self-defense laws.
- NRS 200.275 Justifiable infliction or threat of bodily injury not punishable.
Davis v. State, 321 P.3d 867, 130 Nev. Adv. Rep. 16 (Nevada Supreme Court, 2014) (“Death does not have to be the result for self-defense to be applicable…Specifically, NRS 200.275 contemplates self-defense applying in contexts outside of homicide, as it unambiguously provides that “[i]n addition to any other circumstances recognized as justification at common law, the infliction or threat of bodily injury is justifiable, and does not constitute mayhem, battery or assault, if done under circumstances which would justify homicide”…These provisions ensure that persons who stop short of killing in self-defense are afforded the same defenses as those who actually kill their assailants.”).Pimentel v. State, 396 P.3d 759, 133 Nev. Adv. Rep. 31 (2017) (“In Wilmeth v. State, 96 Nev. 403, 405-06, 610 P.2d 735, 737 (1980), we held that where a challenge to fight is accepted and the decedent unilaterally escalated the fight with a deadly weapon, the survivor was not entitled to a self-defense jury instruction.”).
- NRS 200.130.NRS 200.120 “Justifiable homicide” defined; no duty to retreat under certain circumstances.NRS 200.200.Culverson v. State, 106 Nev. 484, 797 P.2d 238 (1990) (“[Self-defense] would also be justifiable if there was no actual or immediate danger to the defendant, but the defendant reasonably believed that his assailant could kill or seriously harm him.”).Davis v. State, 321 P.3d 867, 130 Nev. Adv. Rep. 16 (2014) (“a person is allowed to use “[r]esistance sufficient . . . [t]o prevent an offense against his or her person,” and, if the resistance is homicide, it is justifiable if “the circumstances were sufficient to excite the fears of a reasonable person.”).
- Id.; Culverson v. State, 106 Nev. 484, 797 P.2d 238 (1990) (“Therefore, we hold that a person, who is not the original aggressor, has no duty to retreat before using deadly force, if a reasonable person in the position of the non-aggressor would believe that his assailant is about to kill him or cause him serious bodily harm.”).
- NRS 193.240; Batson v. State, 113 Nev. 669, 941 P.2d 478 (1997) (“[O]ne who would come to the defense of others must stand in the shoes of the person being defended.”).
- NRS 200.130 Bare fear insufficient to justify killing; reasonable fear required; rebuttable presumption under certain circumstances. 1. A bare fear of any of the offenses mentioned in NRS 200.120, to prevent which the homicide is alleged to have been committed, is not sufficient to justify the killing. It must appear that the circumstances were sufficient to excite the fears of a reasonable person and that the person killing really acted under the influence of those fears and not in a spirit of revenge. Hill v. State, 647 P.2d 370, 98 Nev. 295 (1982). (Imperfect self-defense will not reduce a charge of murder down to manslaughter.).
- NRS 200.120; NRS 200.200.
- See Boykins v. State, 116 Nev. 171, 995 P.2d 474 (2000) (“Under Nevada law, the effect of domestic violence on “beliefs, behavior, and perception” of a defendant is admissible to “show the defendant’s state of mind.” However, battered woman syndrome is not a complete defense.”).
- NRS 200.120; NRS 200.130; NRS 200.160; NRS 200.200.
- State v. Weddell, 117 Nev. 651, 27 P.3d 450 (2001) (“Like the affirmative defense of self-defense, the State bears the burden to prove that the use of deadly force was not reasonable and necessary.”); St. Pierre v. State, 96 Nev. 887, 620 P.2d 1240 (1980)(“Accordingly, once the accused raises the issue of self-defense and the record contains some evidence of its existence, whatever its source…he cannot be required to shoulder the burden of proving self-defense by any standard as self-defense by its nature, disproves a fact essential to the offense. To shift the burden to the defendant “dilutes the State’s own due process burden of proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, every element of the crime charged.” Kelso v. State, 95 Nev. at 41, 588 P.2d at 1038, citing Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197.”); State v. Stella, 41 Nev. 113, 168 P. 278 (1917) (“We adhere to the rule, which we believe is fully supported by the great weight of authority, that the character or reputation of the deceased in homicide cases is to be proven rather by evidence of general reputation of the deceased in the community in which he lived than by particular acts or instances which were not a part of the res geste nor connected therewith.”).