A potential and well-known defense that may be used in response to being charged with a violent person-crime (such as assault or murder) is ‘Self-Defense.'
While the law generally prohibits the use of force by and amongst the general public (the government essentially maintains a monopoly on permissible violence) there are certain situations where the use of force is justified.
In Minnesota, Self-Defense has four elements:
- The absence of aggression or provocation by the defendant;
- The defendant's actual and honest belief that they or another was in imminent danger of bodily harm;
- The existence of reasonable grounds for the belief, and;
- The absence of a reasonable possibility of retreat to avoid danger (unless the defendant is in their home, which case there is no duty to retreat).
State v. Zumberge, 888 N.W.2d 688, 694 (Minn. 2017).
Additionally, the type of force used in self-defense must be “reasonable,” and proportional to the situation. For example (and barring exceptional circumstances), responding with gunfire in response to a light push would likely not be “reasonable."
It is important to note that because Self-Defense is an “affirmative defense” (more on those here), a defendant who wants to claim Self-Defense isn't necessarily entitled to it. A defendant must provide some evidence—also called an “offer of proof”—that all the elements of Self-Defense are present. If the Judge agrees that the defendant satisfied the required offer of proof, they will permit them (or their attorney) to argue Self-Defense to the jury, and give the jury the Self-Defense jury instruction. However, if the Judge decides a defendant did not satisfy the initial required offer of proof, they may deny the defendant the ability to argue Self-Defense entirely, in which case the instruction will not be read, the attorney would be prohibited from arguing Self-Defense, and the Jury would therefore not consider the issue.
The Minnesota Jury Instruction (below) provides more specific detail, but the four elements noted above are the gravamen of a successful Self-Defense argument.
If Self-Defense is permitted to be argued, the jury would receive the following instructions to consider in its deliberations:
“No crime is committed when a person uses reasonable force to resist an offense against the person, if such an offense was being committed or the person reasonably believed that it was.
An ‘offense against the person' means an offense of a physical nature with the potential to cause bodily harm.
‘Bodily harm' means physical pain or injury, illness, or any impairment of the physical condition.
It is lawful for a person, who is resisting an offense against his/her person and who has reasonable grounds to believe that bodily injury is about to be inflicted to defend from an attack. In doing so, the person may use all force and means that the person reasonably believes to be necessary and that would appear to a reasonable person, in similar circumstances, to be necessary to prevent an injury that appears to be imminent. The kind and degree of force a person may lawfully use in defense of self or others is limited by what a reasonable person in the same situation would believe to be necessary. Any use of force beyond that is not reasonable.
The legal excuse of defense of self or others is available only to those who act honestly and in good faith. A person may use force in defense of self or others only if the person was not the aggressor and did not provoke the offense. The defendant has a duty to retreat or avoid the danger if reasonably possible, except the defendant has no duty to retreat when acting in defense of self or others in his/her home.”
Minn. JIG. 7.13.
In every criminal case, the State has the burden of proving each and every element of its case beyond a reasonable doubt. If a defendant is permitted to argue Self-Defense, the State, in addition to having to prove every element of the charged offense against the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt, must additionally prove beyond a reasonable doubt that at least one element of Self-Defense was not met in order to convict.
This creates a heavier burden for the State, and can be incredibly beneficial to a defendant's case.
Self-Defense can be an extremely powerful argument against a criminal charge for harming another person. But, like everything in the law, it's complicated. That's why it's important to work closely with an attorney to review the unique facts and circumstances of your case to put together the best possible defense, including a potential claim of Self-Defense. Contact us today for a free case consultation—you don't have to face your charges alone!