What is Considered Self-Defense in California?


California law says you are allowed to defend yourself if someone attacks you. But what exactly constitutes self-defense in California? Every state defines self-defense differently, and you could find yourself in serious legal trouble if your self-defense argument fails in a criminal case.

If the police want to question you after you’ve defended yourself from an attacker, contact the Law Offices of Justin E. Sterling immediately. Attorney Justin E. Sterling is a former Los Angeles County public defender with significant experience handling criminal cases, including more than 70 jury trials. Our team understands what is at stake if you are charged with a violent crime, and we can defend your rights at this critical moment in your life. Call us today or visit our contact page for a free case review.

What is Self-Defense?

Self-defense is a legal strategy in which you assert you had to use physical force to defend yourself, your property, or another person because of someone else’s threatening behavior.

Usually, physically assaulting someone or using a deadly weapon against them is illegal. But acting in self-defense is an exception to this rule. But you must prove your actions were justified according to specific criteria for the self-defense strategy to apply.

When is Self-Defense a Valid Legal Argument?

A self-defense strategy could apply if:

  • Someone threatened or attacked you. If someone attacks you or you have a reasonable fear of physical harm from another person, you are allowed to use force — including deadly force in certain circumstances — to defend yourself.
  • Someone threatened your property. You can use force to defend yourself if someone attempts to steal or damage your personal property.
  • Someone else is being threatened or attacked. In certain instances, you can use physical force to defend someone else. These cases are tricky because it can be challenging to know at the moment if someone else is truly in danger.
Self Defense Rights

California’s Self-Defense Laws

Some state laws and legal principles specify when and how you can use self-defense as a legal argument. Self-defense laws in California include:

  • Stand Your Ground Doctrine – Stand Your Ground is a legal concept meaning you have no duty to retreat before defending yourself if you are threatened or attacked. Some states have specific Stand Your Ground laws, but California does not. Instead, the Stand Your Ground principles have come down through prior court decisions and can be found in the jury instructions provided by the state court system. According to the instructions, self-defense is justified if you reasonably believe that you or another person is in imminent danger, that immediate use of force is necessary to defend against the threat, and you use no more force than necessary.
  • California’s Castle Doctrine – While California does not have a Stand Your Ground law, the Castle Doctrine outlines your right to defend yourself in your home. The statute says you have the right to use deadly force (without a duty to retreat) if someone is in your home unlawfully and you have a reasonable fear of injury or death. This law is found in Section 198.5 of the California Penal Code.
California Self Defense Laws

Using Self-Defense Under Imminent Danger

To be justified in using self-defense when you are in imminent danger, you must meet the following criteria:

  • Imminent danger – Imminent danger means an immediate and present threat to your safety. If you are in an argument and the other party throws a punch, that counts as an immediate and present threat. But if the other party leaves and threatens to attack you tomorrow, you would not be justified in using self-defense because you were not in immediate danger.
  • Reasonable belief of a threat – Reasonable is a difficult term when it comes to the law. In self-defense cases, you must show that given all the facts you knew at the time, a reasonable person would have reacted the same way you did.
  • Justifiable force – This means you used no more force than was reasonably necessary to defend yourself. If someone threatened to hit you but had not yet attacked, shooting them with a gun may not be justifiable since you may have been able to subdue them another way.
  • Deadly force – To be justified in using deadly force in self-defense, you must meet all the criteria above. You must also demonstrate that you were in imminent danger of death, serious bodily injury, or the victim of a “forcible and atrocious” crime.
Imminent Danger

Can I Use Self-Defense if I Start a Fight?

You can use self-defense if you are the initial aggressor in a fight, but only if:

  • You made a good-faith effort to stop the fight.
  • You indicated, through your words or actions, that you wished to stop the fight in a way a reasonable person would understand.
  • You gave your opponent a chance to stop fighting.

Self-Defense of Other Individuals

You are allowed to use force to defend someone else if you reasonably believe they are in danger, that immediate use of force is necessary, and you use no more force than necessary.

Defense of Property

You can use reasonable force to defend your property if the possessions are in danger of imminent harm.

What if a Firearm Was Involved?

You can shoot someone in self-defense if you can show that your actions were reasonable under the circumstances. That means proving you had a reasonable fear of death or severe injury, reasonably believed deadly force was necessary and used no more force than was required to defend yourself. These are essentially the same criteria as any other self-defense case, but you will likely come under greater scrutiny for using a firearm, especially if you killed your attacker.

Imperfect Self-Defense

Imperfect self-defense is a legal concept in murder cases. Imperfect self-defense means that you honestly believed you were in imminent danger and had to use force to defend yourself, but that one (or both) beliefs were not reasonable or justified.

Imperfect self-defense is not enough to acquit you of killing someone. Still, you may be able to use this strategy to have your charges reduced from murder to voluntary manslaughter, which carries a much lighter penalty.

Contact a Proven Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney

Self-defense is a complicated area of criminal law. If you used force to defend yourself and now face criminal charges, you need an experienced California self-defense lawyer to represent you. Contact the Law Offices of Justin E. Sterling today for a free case review.