What Constitutes Self-Defense in California?

“Self-Defense” functions as a legal defense in California. It can excuse behavior which would otherwise be considered as criminal. However, it does not apply to all situations, nor does it apply to all acts. California self-defense law is quite specific.

The basic principle of self-defense is that you should not be punished for injuring or killing another while trying to protect yourself.   However, your actions must be judged reasonable under the circumstances.

Self-Defense in the News

The recent shooting death of Trayvon Martin has caused our nation to re-examine the right to self-defense.  In Sanford, Florida, George Zimmerman was initially not held responsible for the shooting because of the 2005 Florida statute known as the Stand Your Ground law.  Essentially, this law permits any person to employ justifiable force in self-defense when there is reasonable belief of a threat, even if that force is deadly.

Since Martin’s death, the nation has been in an uproar. It is raising disturbing questions about gun control in the United States and the incident has opened the doorway for legislators to reexamine self-defense laws.

What are the Self-Defense Laws in California?

There are two standard California Jury Instructions that further help to define self-defense:

“It is lawful for a person who is being assaulted to defend himself from attack if, as a reasonable person, he has grounds to believe that bodily injury is about to be inflicted upon him. In doing so, that person may use all force and means which he believes to be reasonably necessary and which would appear to a reasonable person, in the same or similar circumstances, to be necessary to prevent the injury which appears to be imminent.” (California Jury Instructions–Criminal (CALJIC) 5.30.)

“An assault with the fists does not justify the person being assaulted in using a deadly weapon in self-defense unless that person believes and a reasonable person in the same or similar circumstances would believe that the assault is likely to inflict great bodily injury upon him.” (CALJIC 5.31.)

Other instructions specify that the assaulted person need not retreat and the appearance of danger is sufficient. Also, self-defense is not available after the danger ceases or the adversary is disabled.  It is also not considered self-defense when an aggressor or participant in mutual combat has not tried to stop fighting.

A lot depends upon what the jury thinks is “reasonable.” This involves ONLY bodily self-defense, and not defense of property.

What are differences between Florida and California Self-Defense Laws?

There are two major differences between  the Florida and California law.  First, in California, a person claiming self-defense must use “reasonable force,” while Florida law says a person can “meet force with force, including lethal force.”

In Florida, that means if someone first punches you with their fist, you could respond by shooting them with deadly force.

The second major difference is that in Florida, when self-defense is invoked, there is a presumption the killing is reasonable. The burden is put on prosecutors to show that it is not.

In California the burden is on the attorneys representing the person claiming self-defense to show the killing was reasonable.

If you have any questions or concerns about what constitutes self-defense in California, please call our office at 619-330-5881.  Mr. Elliott N. Kanter is a Criminal Defense Attorney with over 30 years’ experience in Southern California.  He is here to help you. You may also fill out the secure on-line form for a confidential and free case review.

This article is for educational purposes only.   It does not create an attorney–client relationship.