LEGAL Self-Defense


Self-defense means that you used force or violence against another person, but did so to protect yourself from imminent harm or danger.  The argument of self-defense is what is known as an affirmative defense.  When you argue an affirmative defense, you admit that you engaged in certain behavior. However, you only did so because you needed to protect yourself or another person.

In other words, you admit to breaking the law by engaging in violence or force against another person, but ask for your behavior to be excused because it was necessary to protect yourself (or another person) from harm.

Self-defense can be a valid defense to many crimes in California, including:


There is no section of the California Penal Code that outlines a person’s right act in self-defense. However, the state’s jury instructions permit a defendant to assert the defense in a criminal matter. A jury, after reviewing all relevant evidence and testimony, may find that violent behavior is excusable under certain circumstances.

Section 505 of California’s Criminal Jury Instructions outlines what a defendant must establish in order to successfully argue self-defense. A defendant will be considered to have acted in self-defense, and therefore will not be guilty of a violent crime, if they can prove:

Imminent Danger

Self-defense is only a valid argument when a defendant reasonably believes that they are in imminent danger. Danger is imminent when it is an immediate or present threat. Danger cannot be prospective or feared in the near future. The danger must be right now.

Example: If someone charges at you with a knife, the threat of danger would be considered imminent. You would likely be justified if you used force to subdue or stop the threat. However, if someone displayed a knife to you across a room and threatened to stab you at some point later that day, the threat would not be considered imminent. You would not be justified in using force or violence to protect yourself at that moment. The threat of danger to you must be happening in that very moment.

Reasonable Belief a Threat Exists

Self-defense is only a valid excuse when you have a reasonable belief that a threat exists. Your belief that danger exists does not necessarily have to be correct. It must simply be reasonable and honest.

When determining if a belief was reasonable, a jury will consider what an objectively reasonable person would have believed under similar circumstances. They will consider all relevant circumstances and factors when making this decision.

Individuals suffering from mental illness may have a difficult time establishing that their belief in imminent danger was reasonable. If a person hears voices in their head or is extremely paranoid, they may be driven to harm another person to protect themselves. However, a reasonable person in their situation may not believe that a threat exists.

Justifiable Force

When acting in self-defense, you are generally only permitted to use the level of force necessary to stop the perceived threat of harm. For example, if someone threatened to punch you, shooting and killing them would exceed the level of force necessary to fend off the threat.

If you have been previously threatened by an attacker, you may be justified in using more force than would ordinarily be necessary to protect yourself.

Deadly Force

Is deadly force ever permitted when acting in self-defense? Yes. However, at the time you act, you must reasonably believe that you are in imminent danger of being killed or seriously injured. The level of force you use cannot exceed the threat with which you are faced. If the threat you face is death or great bodily harm, deadly force can be excusable.

Deadly force may be justified if you are reasonably fearful of rape, murder, robbery, mayhem, or any attack that would cause great bodily injury.

Initial Aggressor

Can you use the argument of self-defense if you started a fight and were the initial aggressor? In some situations, the answer is yes. You can argue self-defense, even if you were responsible for starting a fight, if you clearly indicated that you wanted to stop fighting and made a good faith attempt to do so.

You may also be able to justify a use of force if a fight began with non-deadly force, but the other person responded with deadly force. Your efforts to protect yourself from serious bodily injury and/or death may be justified.


In California, you not only have the right to defend yourself from imminent danger, but also the right to protect others. In order for the defense to be successful, you must establish:


Do you have a responsibility to try and escape harm before resorting to the use of force? Many states across the county have what is known as “Stand Your Ground” laws. These laws make it permissible to use force to protect yourself without first retreating. While California does not have a dedicated Stand Your Ground law, it does recognize an individual’s right to use force without first trying to escape.

In California, you have the right to stand your ground and protect yourself without retreating. In fact, you even have the right to pursue your attacker until the imminent danger against you (or someone else) no longer exists.

In simpler terms, you do not have to try to escape harm by running away. Using force to protect yourself is justified.


In California, you not only have the right to protect yourself and others in public, but also within your own home. California’s “Castle Doctrine” recognizes a person’s right to use deadly force inside of his or her own home when someone uses force to break in.

California Penal Code 198.5 PC explains that a person will be presumed to have a reasonable fear of imminent harm when someone unlawfully breaks into their home. If the person, while in their own home, uses deadly force to protect themselves and their family, it can be justified as self-defense.

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