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The Law of Self-Defense

With police involved shootings dominating the news cycle these days, it is time to consider when one can defend oneself using deadly force. The law in North Carolina requires four elements to be present for the use of deadly force to be justified as self-defense.

Those factors are:

1. The defendant cannot be the aggressor. This is common sense. The law does not permit one to start a fight with another person and then have that fight justified under a theory of self-defense. Because of this, trials where a defendant claims self-defense will necessarily include evidence about which person was or was not the aggressor.

2. The defendant must be afraid of imminent death or serious bodily harm. This is often called the subjective test. Whatever situation the defendant was confronted with must be one that placed him in fear of death or serious bodily harm for self-defense to be justified.

3. A reasonable person in the defendant's position would also have been in fear of death or serious bodily harm. This is often called the objective test. It is not enough just for the defendant to have been in fear of death or serious bodily harm, but that fear must be reasonable, or self-defense does not apply.

4. The defendant's use of force must be proportional. That is, only if the defendant is confronted with deadly force may the defendant use deadly force to defend himself. For example, if someone punched the defendant in the nose, the defendant would be justified in punching him back. However, the defendant would not be justified in shooting the aggressor, because the defendant was not confronted with deadly force. This situation is what is called "imperfect self-defense". When "imperfect self-defense" applies, the defendant is still guilty of a homicide, but is guilty of voluntary manslaughter instead of a type of murder. Courts consider a number of factors in determining if the force the defendant was confronted with was deadly, including the age, size, strength and numbers of people involved.

While those are the only four elements that North Carolina requires for self-defense, some states have a fifth element requiring that the defendant also attempt to retreat if possible. States like North Carolina, that have no such obligation, are sometimes referred to as "stand your ground" States.

The law for police officers is the same as it is for non-officers. While many pundits in the media claim to know whether one shooting or another was justified or not, if they are not applying the factors listed above, they do not have an informed opinion. Knowledge of the law is a must if you are going to properly analyze a police-involved shooting, or any other shooting.

DISCLAIMER: THE INFORMATION PROVIDED IN THIS BLOG POST WAS PREPARED BY KLUTTZ, REAMER, HAYES, ADKINS AND CARTER AND IS INTENDED FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY AND NOT, IN ANY WAY, CONSIDERED LEGAL ADVICE.

Andrew Charles "Drew" Cochran

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