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What is California Self Defense Law?

Self-defense is the act of using force to defend yourself or someone else. Using force against people is normally a crime. When you claim self-defense as a legal defense for your actions, you are admitting that you committed the crime, but did so only to defend yourself. This is a form of affirmative defense.

California self-defense laws allow you to use force, up to and including lethal force, to defend yourself or other people. This means that if you have a reasonable belief that someone presents an imminent danger, you may use proportionate force to stop the threat.

Is California a ‘Stand Your Ground’ State?

Self-defense laws explicitly state that if you are in immediate danger, you do not have any obligation to retreat (Penal Code 198.5). Even if retreat is available and appears to be a safer option, you have the right of self-defense and are legally entitled to stand your ground against an attacker. This is the opposite of ‘Duty to Retreat’ self-defense rules. In states with a ‘Duty to Retreat’ doctrine, victims of violent crimes are obliged to attempt any available escapes before defending themselves with force.

For example, if you are walking on the street and someone threatens you with a weapon, assaults you, or otherwise illegally uses force against you, California laws of self-defense do not require you to run away or leave the area. If you are somewhere you are entitled to be, like a public area, then you can use the necessary force to remain in that place without becoming the victim of a violent crime.

In some circumstances, you may even pursue an attacker if it can reasonably be deemed necessary to prevent their attempted crime.

Is California a “Castle Doctrine” State?

In California, like many other states, your right to stand your ground applies within your own home with additional protections. Most significantly, there is a legal presumption that you feared imminent serious injury or death. This legal principle is known as the Castle Doctrine.

The specifics of this California self-defense gun law differ from state to state. In California, the Castle Doctrine only applies within your home itself, not all of your property. In other words, it does not apply in your yard, driveway, and other outdoor areas.

This means that if an intruder breaks into your home, the court must assume that it was reasonable for you to believe you were in imminent danger. As a result, if an intruder forces their way into your home, your use of force, up to and including the use of deadly force in self-defense, will be given the benefit of the doubt unless contradictory evidence can be produced.

California Self-Defense Laws

When is Self Defense Justified?

When you act in self-defense, you have committed a violent crime, and you could be punished for it if you did so in a situation where you cannot claim self-defense. Some valid self-defense uses are obvious. If someone physically assaults you or someone else around you, you may use force to dissuade them from further violence or render them incapable of further violence, as necessary. Under the Castle Doctrine, uses of force against a home intruder are usually considered valid self-defense.

Outside of your home, you can generally only claim self-defense when you are acting to prevent use or threat of violence. This means that you cannot use force to prevent larceny-theft, such as someone stealing a package from your porch. However, if someone commits robbery, this involves the use of force.

For example, when someone brandishes a weapon at you or threatens to assault you if you do not hand over your possessions or vacate your vehicle. In these scenarios, the threat of violence creates a reason for you to believe that force is necessary to protect yourself from harm, which can justify your claim of self-defense.

What are the Elements of Self-Defense in California?

To successfully claim self-defense after using force against someone, you must prove that:

  • You reasonably believed yourself or someone else to be in imminent danger
  • You reasonably believed that using force was necessary to prevent harm
  • You did not use more force than was necessary to prevent harm

Proving these is not always straightforward, but violent crimes lawyers can help you make the best argument for your case.

  • Imminent Danger

Imminent danger means that there is a possibility of you or someone else being harmed, and it is happening right now. You cannot claim self-defense for an action you take pre-emptively.

For example, if someone brandishes a weapon and approaches you with it, there is an immediate threat. However, if someone threatens you with violence that will happen at a later point, such as by making a threatening phone call, you cannot use force in response to that threat alone.

You also cannot claim self-defense for an action you take in response to harm that has already occurred and is no longer happening. For example, if someone assaults you then you can defend yourself at the time, but you cannot seek them out later to attack them.

  • Reasonable Belief a Threat Exists

Your belief that there is a real threat can be reasonable even if the threat does not really exist. A jury will decide whether a reasonable person would have believed the danger was real if they had been in your position, with the information you had.

For example, if someone points a fake or unloaded gun at you, most people would assume that the gun is real and loaded. As a result, you had a reasonable belief that you were in imminent danger and needed to use force, even though your assumption was incorrect.

On the other hand, your belief that you are in danger can also be unreasonable. For example, if you are experiencing paranoid delusions or hallucinations you may feel that someone intends you harm, and respond with force. A reasonable person would not have believed that they were in any danger, so you cannot argue that you had a reasonable belief of the threat.

  • Justifiable Force

You cannot use a level of force that exceeds what is needed to stop a threat. For example, if someone shoves you, you may be justified in shoving them back to get them away from you. Responding to this assault by shooting or stabbing someone would likely be seen as an excessive force that was not needed to end the threat.

This is more complex than the initial level of violence or the type of weapon involved, however. There are many factors that can affect whether your use of force was justified.

If you are outnumbered or physically outmatched, this can justify a reasonable belief that greater use of force was needed to prevent the threat. There can also be situations where a reasonable person might deem less force to be necessary, such as if you use self-defense against a minor.


What are the Limits of Self Defense?

You can only claim self-defense when you have used force to protect human life or protect a person from bodily harm such as assault, kidnapping, or sexual assault. In California, your use of force must be proportionate to the threat.

The legal right of self-defense ends when there is no longer an imminent danger. You must stop using force as soon as the threat has passed. For example, you cannot continue to hurt someone once they are restrained or unconscious, because they are not a danger to you anymore, regardless of what they did or attempted to do to you previously.

What is Imperfect Self Defense?

Imperfect self-defense means that your case does not have all three elements of a self-defense action; however, it has enough elements that you are partially excused for your crime. This can result in receiving a lesser charge, such as turning a murder charge into a voluntary manslaughter charge, which carries a lighter sentence.

Can I Claim Self-Defense If I Hit Someone First?

You can claim self-defense even if you attacked first, but this places even more emphasis on the grey areas of whether your belief of danger was reasonable, and the use of force justified. For example, you could argue that someone bunched their fist and tensed as though they were going to punch you, so you acted to restrain them before they could do it.

If you have previously assaulted someone before leaving the scene and they later attack you, you can claim self-defense for using force to prevent their attack, even if you are found guilty of the initial assault.

Can you go to Jail for Self Defense in California?

If the jury finds that your actions were not self-defense, or were a case of imperfect self-defense, you can be convicted of a crime that carries a prison sentence. The highest charge you can be convicted of for imperfect self-defense is voluntary manslaughter (Penal Code 192), which can have a sentence of up to eleven years and a fine of up to $10,000.

Have you been involved in a self-defense incident and need a Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer? Contact the best attorney in LA to ensure the best outcome for your case.

Shaheen Manshoory
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