As a defender of self or others from criminal violence, you’ll be aware of the situation and make your best assessment in the moment. As you do, you will consciously or unconsciously note various factors that will guide your mental attitude and response actions.
In the event of the use of force in self- defense, you may be required to justify your use of force, legally. Most of the factors that a jury, judge, law enforcement officer, media, and the community will consider will be the same as the factors you consider at the moment of threat to your personal safety. The big difference is that people judging you will not experience the stress of being under attack, the time pressure, and will have the benefit of hindsight – access to information you did not have at the time.
Sometimes it seems that no matter what choice a person makes, someone imagines they could have done better. That gap between the ideal and the real may seem inevitable, but how can we reduce it? Physical self-defense training is vital, but it’s also important to consider these issues deeply, so that when they come up we will be better prepared to make the right choices. What are the factors that help make up the totality of circumstances for lawful use of force in self-defense?
The first foundation of personal safety is situational awareness. We strive for a high level of awareness of our situation at all times. But humans have a limited ability to pay attention. When we divide our attention across multiple objects, our awareness is degraded. Our situational awareness should be heightened depending upon time, place and immediate circumstances. For example, relaxing within the safety of our home, we may have no problem multitasking. But while driving our car, or walking – dividing our attention between those tasks and say, attending to our smart phone will degrade our awareness and safety.
Awareness is also degraded by alcohol and other intoxicants. When police stop a driver on suspicion of DWI, they will generally ask the driver to perform roadside field exercises. These are divided attention tests. A person impaired by alcohol has a reduced ability to divide her attention and perform two tasks at the same time. We can avoid the use of alcohol or impairment by alcohol if we wish to maintain our ability for situational awareness.
When it comes to criminal violence, we need to be aware of other humans. We need to be aware of proximity, threat potential, and potential responses to any threat presented (plan B). We can adjust to potential threats before the risk of criminal violence grows, for example if we are situationally aware and spidey-sense a potential threat, by crossing the street or moving away from the threat.
Sometimes situational awareness will not help us avoid trouble. If we are suddenly presented with a physical attack or the threat of one, situational awareness can help us respond in the best possible way under the circumstances.
Disparity of threat or force
Since the core of self-defense law is the use of reasonable force under the circumstances, the question of proportionality is key. If you are presented with a threat of criminal attack, or are attacked, you are expected to act reasonably or to use force reasonably proportionate to the threat or force used upon you.
Size and strength disparity
If you are a 100 pound, 65-year-old woman facing a 200 pound, 20-year-old man threatening rape or robbery, would that disparity in size and strength justify your greater use of force than if the situation were reversed? We know it would.
Single attacker vs. multiple attackers
It is far more difficult for one person to defend against a criminal attack by multiple attackers than a single assailant. As a result, it would be necessary for a person defending against multiple attackers to use more aggressive and more lethal force.
Against a single unarmed attacker, forcing the assailant to deliver the first blow not only may have tactical advantage but also a legal one. But against multiple attackers, it may be necessary for the self-defender to strike the first blow, perhaps against the apparent leader.
Sobriety vs. intoxication
Alcohol (and other drugs) is a wild card. It can cut in multiple directions. It deserves consideration, since alcohol is involved in most assaults. Assuming a two person conflict, either or both may have been drinking. Generally voluntary intoxication is not a defense to criminal liability, but it can have a big effect on both intent and physical ability. And even those can vary with the person’s level of intoxication.
In terms of the threat level of an intoxicated attacker, there can be the potential for that intoxication making the aggressor a greater threat than if sober. If so, the use of greater or more lethal force could be justified.
The use of force continuum
The force continuum is the range of levels force that can be used. Implicit within the term, use of force continuum, is proportionality. Depending upon the circumstances, calling 911 and the presence of a police officer; or a verbal warning and display of a weapon, might be on the lower end of the continuum (lower than another potentially reasonable option).
The law, the community, would like us to use the lowest level of force possible to avoid or resolve a physical or potentially physical conflict. Yet the law and the community recognize that this must be viewed from the perspective of the person being judged, given what they knew at the time, and the pressures of their situation at the time.
Verbal and nonverbal communication
To the extent possible, it’s a good idea to communication verbally and non-verbally with the criminal assailant. You may want to give clear verbal warnings. Depending upon circumstances, you may be communicating de-escalation or escalation – whichever is then most likely to stop the threat or the criminal act. Escalation, where used, should avoid fighting words or provocation, but rather verbal commands to stop the attack, disarm, and the like. You may also be communicating so that your intentions are clear to any witnesses or electronic observation. Where possible, you can call 911 both to request police assistance as well as to create an audio record of what is happening.
It’s good to have options, and it’s nice to have a weapon if attacked. Having a weapon does not mean it must be used. Empty-hand defense can also vary in level of force. For example, an unarmed attacker could be disabled with a snap kick to the knee to break their leg. But if we are capable of stopping the attacker effectively with a lower level of force or injury, we will. We will try to use the lowest level of force to effectively stop the threat from the assailant.
Empty-hand vs. armed with weapon
What if either you or the criminal attackers are armed with a weapon? Usually a person with a weapon will try to conceal its presence. We use our situational awareness to best detect whether they have a weapon, either within reach, on their person, or in their hand. Since a weapon in hand is the greatest threat, we do what we can to determine whether they have a weapon in their hand. A common clue is that one or both hands are concealed behind or otherwise out of sight. If it seems possible, a verbal command may be in order: “Drop the weapon! Now!”
If you have a weapon, depending upon circumstances, you may choose to keep it hidden. Most trainers advocate keeping a weapon out of sight until it is necessary to use it. In certain circumstances, it could be reasonable to display a weapon in self-defense as part of an effort to warn the opponent and avoid injury.
Legally, afterwards, the issue may arise of whether the defendant (you) reasonably believed the assailant had a weapon, though none later could be found. This can be a serious problem. To reduce this risk, try to be sure the criminal does have a weapon; verbalize the presence of a weapon; and if possible be sure police later are able to locate it.
Lethality of weapon
When it comes to weapons, some have the potential for lesser or greater levels of force – for example pepper spray vs. a handgun. It’s nice to have choices, when it comes to lethality of weapons. Police officers generally have more equipment than other folks do. But whether we are at home, in the car, or out and about, most adults have choices available to them. The limiting factors on choice here may be, on the one hand knowledge and training, and on the other hand convenience.
Range and distance
Distance is important when it comes to reasonable fear of imminent bodily harm or death. Some open-hand fighting styles are said to be long-range or short-range. A kick can reach farther than a punch. Different weapons have different effective ranges. A baton has a shorter range than an arrow.
We know the law of self-defense has no bright line, just a totality of circumstances test –and means discretion. Discretion is rooted in the experience of the beholder. Rather than personal training, today the average person’s “experience” is indirect – from stories they’ve read, seen or heard, most often in entertainment media such as songs, books, and especially movies or television. These mythological “experiences” are problematic since they tend to be wrong more often than not. For example, in the movies when someone is shot with a gun, they usually drop dead immediately. But in real life, that rarely is exceptionally rare. A criminal attacker armed with a knife who is shot by a lawful defender twenty-one feet away can still survive long enough to kill the defender with the knife. See The Tueller Drill.
Once engaged, do not stop until the threat is stopped. Once the threat is stopped, disengage.
After you’ve been attacked, continue the necessary, reasonable use of force in self-defense until the threat is over. Once the attacker is disarmed, disabled and otherwise clearly is no longer a threat, the use of force is no longer necessary and stops. It may be a challenge to determine when this point has been reached, depending upon the situation. It’s often a good idea to leave the area as soon as it can be safely done – again, depending upon the situation. It’s a good idea to get help for the injured criminal if possible, possibly via 911. If it is clearly safe to do so, render First Aid.
We do not seek retribution.
We do not take it upon ourselves to punish, or teach a lesson to the wrongdoer. Once the threat is disabled or stopped, we stop using force.
What do you think?
Are there other factors that can be weighed in the totality of circumstances when considering whether a person’s use of force was in self-defense?
Thomas Gallagher is a Minneapolis Criminal Lawyer whose practice includes asserting the defense of self-defense and defense of others on behalf of clients.
Comments are welcome below.