One of the most common defenses to an assault, domestic violence, murder, or other violent crime case is arguing that a person acted in self-defense. But what is a self-defense claim? When is it made? How do you make it? Like most legal issues, it isn’t quite as simple as you may think.
To understand self-defense arguments, we have to first understand what a self-defense argument is. Acting in self-defense essentially means that you did what you are accused of, or you largely did what you are accused of doing, but that you were justified in your actions. Self-defense is a justification defense – this means that it is an argument that you acted in a way that would ordinarily be illegal but, in this case with the circumstances, what you did was justifiable and reasonable to do. This is the first issue I see a lot in self-defense cases – a person does not want to admit that they did something that would ordinarily be illegal, but that is what you have to do. Again, a claim of self-defense means that you acted in a way that is legally justifiable.
There are a few things to keep in mind in a case of self-defense. First, a person who is the initial aggressor cannot generally claim self-defense. So, for example, if Tom punches Jerry in the face, and Jerry then swings back and hits Tom, Tom cannot then use a baseball bat and attack Jerry and claim he acted in self-defense. If you start a fight, you cannot later claim that you were acting in self-defense. The exception to this is a situation where a person may initiate an altercation, but the other person unreasonably escalates the situation. So, in our example, if Jerry responds by pulling out a gun and shooting at Tom, Tom may be able to make a self-defense argument because it is not reasonable to respond to being hit once by attempting to kill the other person. That leads us to the next part of a self-defense claim to keep in mind, that if you claim self-defense your response must be reasonable under the circumstances and proportionate to the potential harm you are facing. So, if you get slapped once outside a bar you cannot respond to that by pulling out a knife and stabbing the person because that is not a reasonable reaction, and it is disproportionate to the potential harm you encountered. Finally, you cannot claim self-defense in a case of “mutual combat,” meaning if you and another person agree to engage in a fight you cannot claim self-defense if you are charged related to that fight.
One misconception I hear a lot when people have questions about self-defense cases is when it should be brought up. The question usually is along the lines of “can’t we just go to the judge, explain what happened, and the case can just be dismissed?” The general answer to this is no. The reason for that is that deciding whether someone acted in self-defense is a question about the facts of the case, not the law. Judges don’t make determinations of the facts of a case; they answer legal questions. If a question is strictly a fact question it is a question that must be answered by what the law calls the “fact finder” in a case. This is a fancy, legal way of saying it is a question for a jury at a trial. Now, you can present your argument to the prosecutor as part of negotiating a resolution to your case, and a prosecutor may believe that you acted in self-defense and either dismiss the case altogether or reduce the charge you are facing. However, a judge will not make a determination prior to trial that a person acted in self-defense and dismiss charges.
You must also keep in mind that, in North Dakota, self-defense is not classified as an affirmative defense. This means that, unlike other states like Minnesota, you do not have to prove to a jury that you acted in self-defense, the State has the burden of proving that you did not act in self-defense in an assault, murder, or other crime of violence case. In fact, the jury instructions in North Dakota include language that a jury must find that a person charged with a violent crime did not act in self-defense, placing the burden on the State to prove that as part of their case. This is different than other states which make self-defense an affirmative defense, which places the burden on you at trial to present evidence to prove you acted in self-defense to a jury.
The last question we have is how do you make a successful self-defense argument at a trial. The first step is hiring an experienced attorney who can help collect the evidence you need and form the arguments and questions to establish that claim at trial. If you received injuries during the incident, you will want to make sure you have photographs of those injuries. If you went to the doctor even better, you will want medical records of your injuries to document the harm that was done to you. If there were other witnesses to what happened they would need to be spoken to, ideally by conducting a deposition of them and getting their statements under oath but, at a minimum, an informal conversation with your lawyer or defense team to find out what information they have to provide. You also may need to issue subpoenas to these witnesses to compel them to appear and testify at trial. Your lawyer will help you collect this information, work up your trial strategy, and come up with the best way to present your evidence and testimony. You also need to be prepared to question the person they are claiming is the victim in your case and this can be a tricky thing to try to do on your own. How aggressively do you want to go after them? How do you word the questions to get the answers you are looking for? What do you do if they lie while testifying or change their story or the facts of what happened? All of these things can be overwhelming to do on your own but, with the help of an experienced lawyer, can be much less daunting and take the pressure off of you to try to do it on your own.
If you have been charged with a violent crime, whether it is an assault, a domestic violence, a murder, or any other crime of violence in North Dakota, you may have a defense to what you are charged with. You need to be able to defend yourself against these charges because, aside from the criminal charges themselves, they may have far reaching impacts on your life. For example, even a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction can prohibit you from purchasing, owning, or using a firearm in the future. You may not be able to find housing with certain companies with a violent crime conviction on your record, and it may make it more difficult to find work in the future. If you have been charged with a violent crime, the first step you should take is contacting an experienced attorney who will aggressively fight to defend you against those charges. If you are facing criminal charges, contact Curran Law Firm today and see what we can do to help fight for you.
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