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California Self-Defense Law
Self Defense & Castle Doctrine Law

In California, a defendant is privileged to use force against another person if the defendant reasonably believes he or she must use that force to defend himself against the threat of immediate physical harm.

In order for the privilege of self-defense to apply, the amount of force used by the defendant must be reasonable in relationship to the harm threatened against him or her, and the defendant must reasonably believe that he or she is immediately about to be harmed.


For example, a defendant is not privileged to stab another person with a knife in 'self defense' when the defendant believed that he was going to be attacked the following day by the person he stabbed (Lack of "imminent" danger to the defendant).

Note: The threat or harm or injury must reasonable and true to the defendant considering the defendant's state of mind and the circumstances that surround the purported threat. This means that the defendant will be judged on both the objective and subjective standard when considering whether or not he was privileged to use self-defense. In essence, the question becomes whether or not the reasonable person would have believed he was about to be harmed by the victim under the same or similar circumstances and whether or not the defendant himself actually believed he was about to be harmed by the victim.

Deadly Force: A defendant is not privileged to use deadly force against another person unless he or she is confronted with deadly force. For example, a defendant is privileged to use deadly force against a person who is threatening the defendant with a loaded gun.


Note: If the defendant was the initial aggressor he or she cannot use self-defense unless the victim responded with excessive force, or the defendant withdrew from the fight (usually by stating that he or she gives up or attempts to get away from the fight). In other words, even if a defendant starts a fight he or she might be privileged to use self-defense.

Injury Not Required: There is no law that states the defendant must first be harmed or injured before he defends himself against reasonable and imminent harm from another person.

Stand Your Ground Law: There is no duty to retreat, or attempt to retreat, from another person's use of deadly force before the defendant is privileged to use self-defense. This is true even if the defendant can safely retreat without resorting to self defense. For example, if the defendant confronted by a person wielding an ax while threatening to kill the defendant, the defendant does not have to run away before using deadly force against the ax-wielding victim, even if the defendant knows that he can safely run away from the ax-wielding victim.

Note: Along with the right to stand your ground, there is no duty to alter activities to avoid a confrontation before resorting to the use of self-defense. For example, if the defendant knows that he can avoid a confrontation with an ax-wielding man by simply changing his daily  routine he does not have to change that routine in order for the privilege of self-defense to apply (assuming the other conditions of reasonable and imminent fear of harm apply).

Defendant Aggressor: If the defendant was the initial aggressor (attacker) he must make a reasonable good faith effort to withdraw from the confrontation before he can use the privilege of self-defense, unless the victim responded with excessive force against the defendant's initial attack and there is no reasonable opportunity to withdraw. For example, if the defendant puts his finger in the victim's face in an aggressive manner and the victim responds by pulling a gun on the defendant, then defendant has a privilege to use self-defense because the victim used unreasonable and excessive force in response to the defendant's initial attack.

Felony Murder Rule & Self-Defense: Self defense does not apply in felony murder cases. A felony murder is killing that occurs during an inherently dangerous felony. For example, if the defendant commits the crime of robbery (an inherently dangerous felony) and the victim defends against the robbery by pulling a gun on the defendant, then the defendant is not privileged to use self-defense against the victim, even though the defendant is now faced with deadly force (the victim's possible use of a gun to defend himself).

Transferred Intent: If the defendant is privileged to use self-defense in a situation then that privilege transfers to a third person harmed by the defendant. For example, if the defendant shoots an intruder breaking into the defendant's home at night and the defendant's bullet hits an innocent neighbor (third party), then the defendant's use of self-defense will transfer to the neighbor against an allegation by the neighbor that he was assaulted by the defendant.


Mental Illness and Self-Defense: The fact that the defendant suffers from a mental illness or defect to the point that he truly believes he needs to use self-defense does not excuse the reasonable person standard (objective test). For example, the defendant is not privileged to use self-defense if the defendant kills a victim because the defendant believes the victim is a space monster who is about to eat the defendant. By definition, the fact that the defendant believes another person is a space monster is not reasonable.

Misc. Self-Defense Issues:


  • Self defense applies to a fear of reasonable and imminent harm by animals. For example, if the defendant discharges a firearm to scare off a bear, then the defendant may use the self-defense privilege against a criminal charge of unlawful discharge of a firearm. 

  • Self defense applies when a felon takes possession of a firearm to avoid a reasonable and imminent harm. For example, if the defendant, a convicted felon, is assaulted with a firearm, and the defendant takes the firearm from the assailant during a struggle, then the defendant may use the defense of self-defense against a criminal charge of felon in possession.

Imperfect Self-Defense: If the defendant truly believes in the need to use deadly force in self-defense, but that belief is objectively not reasonable and the defendant kills the victim with the use of deadly force, then the defendant may be entitled to have his murder charges reduced to voluntary manslaughter

For more information on the defense of self defense, or imperfect self-defense,  call our criminal defense lawyers today for a free consultations. Call today!



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