It is a universally accepted principle that a person may protect themselves from harm under appropriate circumstances, even when that behavior would normally constitute a crime. In the United States legal system, each state allows a defendant to claim self-defense when accused of a violent crime, as does the federal government. The specific rules pertaining to self-defense vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, however. This article offers explanations of the broad concepts that make up self-defense law in the US, but you should check the laws of your particular jurisdiction to understand the specific requirements for a claim of self-defense.
Self-defense is defined as the right to prevent suffering force or violence through the use of a sufficient level of counteracting force or violence. This definition is simple enough on its face, but it raises many questions when applied to actual situations. For instance, what is a sufficient level of force or violence when defending oneself? What goes beyond that level? What if the intended victim provoked the attack? Do victims have to retreat from the violence if possible? What happens when victims reasonably perceive a threat even if the threat doesn’t actually exist? What about when the victim’s apprehension is subjectively genuine, but objectively unreasonable?
As you can see, self-defense is more complicated than it first appears. In order to handle the myriad situations where self-defense arises, states have developed rules to determine when self-defense is allowed and how much force a victim can use to protect themselves. As mentioned, the exact rules differ between states, but the considerations are largely the same.
Is the Threat Imminent?
As a general rule, self-defense only justifies the use of force when it is used in response to an immediate threat. The threat can be verbal, as long as it puts the intended victim in an immediate fear of physical harm. Offensive words without an accompanying threat of immediate physical harm, however, do not justify the use of force in self-defense.
Moreover, the use of force in self-defense generally loses justification once the threat has ended. For example, if an aggressor assaults a victim but then ends the assault and indicates that there is no longer any threat of violence, then the threat of danger has ended. Any use of force by the victim against the assailant at that point would be considered retaliatory and not self-defense.