Woman holding a gun as an armed robber approaches

What are the Rules on Self-Defense in California?

Brownstein Law Group, P.C. May 9, 2022

Self-defense is a common defense strategy people use when charged with a crime that involves causing some form of physical violence. However, it is important to understand the rules on self-defense in California before claiming that you used physical force to protect yourself from imminent harm.

Depending on many factors, using the argument that you acted in self-defense may not be appropriate. That is why you’ll need to discuss your unique case with a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney to examine the facts of your unique case and determine if you have a valid legal defense.

If you are facing criminal charges and believe that you acted in self-defense, schedule a consultation with Josh S. Brownstein to discuss your defense options. Attorney Josh S. Brownstein has an office centrally located in San Rafael, California, but provides legal counsel throughout California, including San Francisco, Marin County, Petaluma, and Novato.

What Is Self-Defense?

Self-defense may be available as a defense strategy in criminal cases where the defendant is accused of committing violent crimes such as assault, battery, domestic violence, and murder. When claiming self-defense, you essentially admit that you used physical force against another person, but you also assert that you acted to protect yourself, someone else, or your property from imminent harm.

However, there are many rules on self-defense in California. One of them is proving that the amount of force used by the defendant was justified and proportional to the imminent threat presented.

When Is Self-Defense a Legal Defense?

California law recognizes an individual’s right to claim self-defense to get assault, battery, domestic violence, or murder charges dismissed or reduced. However, self-defense is not available in all criminal cases involving the use of physical violence. Self-defense may be used as a legal defense when the defendant can establish:

  • Imminent danger. A defendant may be excused from using violence when they have a reasonable belief that they are facing imminent harm. When danger is not imminent, the use of force cannot be considered self-defense under California law. For example, someone pulling out a knife and approaching you with the threat to inflict bodily injury would be considered an imminent danger. However, someone telling you that they would stab you to death with a knife “someday” without actually threatening to cause harm may not be imminent danger.  

  • Reasonable belief that a threat is real. Self-defense is not a valid defense if the defendant cannot prove that they had a reasonable belief that a real threat existed. A judge will consider what a reasonable person would perceive as a real threat when determining if the threat existed. For example, someone jokingly saying, “I will kill you,” without actually planning to do anything that would put you at imminent risk of harm would not be considered a real threat.

  • Justifiable amount of force. While California law permits individuals to defend themselves when they are in immediate danger, they must use a justifiable amount of force to stop the threat of harm. For example, someone shooting an attacker to death after the attacker punches them would most likely not be considered a justifiable amount of force.

  • Initial aggressor. In some cases, an individual facing criminal charges can claim self-defense even when they were responsible for starting the fight. However, self-defense may be a valid defense for an initial aggressor if the following criteria are satisfied: the defendant (1) made a good-faith attempt to stop fighting, and (b) they clearly communicated to the other person that they want to stop the fight. If the initial aggressor does both, and the other person continues to attack them, the aggressor will now be acting in self-defense to protect himself or herself from a threat of harm.  

Each case is unique, which is why your ability to claim self-defense when facing criminal charges depends on the facts of your case. Contact a skilled criminal defense lawyer to analyze the facts of your case and determine if you can argue self-defense to avoid a conviction or reduce the charges.

What Is California’s Castle Doctrine?

California law recognizes a legal theory called the “castle doctrine.” Under the doctrine, residents are permitted to protect themselves and their household members from intruders who break into or attempt to break into their homes. Unlike many other states, California does not require residents to retreat first. They are permitted to use deadly force against the intruder.

California’s castle doctrine may apply to your case if you reasonably believed that there was an imminent risk of bodily harm or death to yourself or a member of your household. A person may have a reasonable fear of imminent harm when the following conditions are met:

  1. An intruder forcibly and unlawfully enters or attempts to enter into their home;

  2. The resident reasonably believed that the intruder unlawfully entered or attempted to enter the home;

  3. The intruder is not a member of the resident’s family or household; and

  4. The resident used physical force in order to cause bodily injury or death to the intruder.

Depending on the circumstances, a resident may be permitted to use the castle doctrine in their defense.

Legal Guidance You Can Trust

If you have been arrested for a violent crime, you might be able to claim self-defense in order to reduce or dismiss the charges against you. Josh S. Brownstein, a Los Angeles-based criminal defense attorney, can help you fight charges by arguing that you were acting in self-defense or using another defense strategy. Set up a consultation with Mr. Brownstein to discuss your unique situation and discuss how you can avoid or mitigate serious criminal consequences.