Self Defense, in a bar fight or fighting for your life in a dark alley, when can you claim self defense.

When can you claim self defense? The answer is it depends.  There is no real answer to the question because there are many factors that go into the determination of self defense.  If you believe you may have a self defense claim, you should talk to your lawyer about your case.  Self defense is an affirmative defense and could have negative impact on your case.  So that being said let’s look at two hypothetical scenarios.  Please don’t rely on this as advice, it is merely two scenarios to highlight some aspects of self defense. 

 Under Massachusetts law, one can defend him or herself with no more force than necessary and has a duty to retreat if it is safe to do so.  Scenario number one, you are in a bar and someone is talking to your girlfriend, you get pushed, and you punch them in the face.  Scenario two, you are in a dark alley, someone pulls out a knife and you punch them in the face. 

 First, in the two scenarios let’s consider if the amount of force is reasonable.  In the bar scenario a push doesn’t seem like a lot of force at all and a punch may be considered unreasonable.  In the second scenario, a punch in response to a knife seems much more reasonable.  Also, one must keep in mind that it is much more difficult if not impossible to claim self defense if you are the first aggressor.   The first aggressor usually means the person who started the physical contact.  In short, if you hit the other person first, it makes it very hard to claim self defense. 

Second, let’s look at duty to retreat.  Under Massachusetts law, a person has the duty to retreat if it is safe to do so prior to using physical force.  In the bar scenario it seems more likely that the person failed to satisfy his duty to retreat from the fight.  It seems like the bar fight could have been avoided if the person walked away.  In the dark alley scenario it seems like the person fulfilled his duty to retreat because it is much more difficult to run away from a person with a knife.  Also, seeing that you are in a dark alley where are you going to run to?  Besides, running may not be safe because it may end up with a knife in your back. 

Some other things to consider are that a person has no duty to retreat if they are in their own home.   That makes sense because the court believes that you should feel safe in your own home and shouldn’t be required to retreat from an intruder.  Deadly force can only be used when faced with the deadly force.  Meaning you can’t shoot and kill someone, even in your own house if that person isn’t using deadly force against you.  Deadly force can also be used to defend oneself against being raped. 

Finally, the thing to remember is that if you are charged with a crime, it is up to the jury to find self defense.  If you raise self defense as an issue, the burden is on the prosecution to prove that it wasn’t self defense.  However, self defense has its drawbacks and could hurt your chances in winning a case if used incorrectly.  In the end, this post is not a license to get into fights and then claim self defense.  Instead, this post is a warning to those who get into fights because claiming self defense may not help your case. 

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems like I’d have the right to defend myself if there was a credible threat and I was in fear for my safety.

    It’s unreasonable to think ‘self-defense’ means letting the other person have the first shot, because after you get pummeled, you can’t defend yourself! A push could have easily been a poke in the eye.

    You just have to be smart about how you defend yourself (what witnesses will remember) and what to say after the fact.

    • That is a good point. Thank you for your insight Adam.

  2. So, I am in a convenience store and an armed criminal comes in and points a gun at the clerk, do I have the duty to retreat or can I pull my legally obtained and concealed firearm to protect me and my fellowman? Does that duty change if the criminal is firing his weapon, has a knife, a bat, etc?

    Seems to me the protection of a potential victim would be my moral obligation, if not legal.

  3. It’s an remarkable paragraph in favor of all the internet viewers; they will obtain advantage from it I am sure.

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