The concept of self-defense seems simple enough on the surface: Someone who’s in danger fights back to protect himself. But some intricate rules lie under the surface, ready to trip anyone who tries to use self-defense as a legal excuse against being charged with a crime that caused bodily harm or even death to another.
All states, including California, have their own versions of self-defense laws. Some are more generous than others. California law stretches to include not only individuals who fight back to protect themselves, but also those who do so to protect someone else.
The requirements for making such a claim are the same regardless of whom the defendant – the individual accused of a crime in which he resorted to self-defense – was attempting to protect.
California Self-Defense Laws 2018 and 2019
The California Penal Code actually does not include provisions for most acts of self-defense, but this doesn’t mean that the state is silent on the issue. The rules for claiming self-defense are included instead in Sections 505 and 3740 of California’s Criminal Jury Instructions.
These rules instruct juries that they can find a defendant not guilty of a violent crime if he was defending himself or someone else and can prove that certain elements existed at the time. His behavior is therefore “excusable.”
California self-defense laws do include a “castle doctrine,” however. California Penal Code 198.5 PC states that an individual can defend himself and his property when someone unlawfully enters his home.
California Castle Doctrine
The “castle doctrine” law provides that an individual doesn’t have to be out in public when he’s threatened for self-defense to apply. California Penal Code 198.5 PC allows that he can defend his home as well should someone use force to break in.
Not only can he defend his home, but he can also use “deadly force” to protect himself and his family. In simplest terms, this means he can legally shoot the intruder, even if he shoots to kill. Most other self-defense rules and laws are based upon using just “reasonable force.”
The law also applies to places of business or other real property. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a personal residence, but the defendant claiming self-defense must own or rent the property. It’s legally presumed that anyone who's using force to enter a property does not have good, healthy intentions for anyone found inside.
What the Law Says
The castle doctrine law reads in part:
“Any person using force intended or likely to cause death or great bodily injury within his or her residence shall be presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily injury to self, family, or a member of the household…"
It also says that “justifiable and excusable homicide is not punishable.” This provision is part of the penal code as opposed to jury instructions, so the burden of proof falls to the prosecution to establish why the defendant’s behavior should not be excused as self-defense.
Defending Other Property
An individual is also permitted to defend his property – either real or personal property such as his automobile – even if the perpetrator doesn’t appear to be threatening him with “peril of death” or “great bodily injury.” This rule falls under California’s Criminal Jury Instructions.
It’s largely the same as the Castle Doctrine law, but with one major exception: Using “reasonable force” is OK, but using “deadly force” in this circumstance generally is not. Using deadly force can be permissible when a robbery is being committed with the use of a firearm or other deadly weapon by the perpetrator, however.
The defendant must establish that his property was literally on the very edge of being harmed or that the damage had already begun. In most cases involving real property, the property owner must issue a warning first for the trespasser to leave his land.
California Self-Defense Law: Stand Your Ground
Standing your ground is a different concept from defending your castle. It means that an individual who is being threatened does not have a legal obligation to attempt to flee before ultimately resorting to self-defense.
While California doesn’t technically have a “stand your ground” law in its penal code, its jury instructions do acknowledge that a defendant doesn’t have to retreat and then be pursued prior to acting in self-defense. Not only that, but a defendant can actually pursue the person who is threatening him rather than run away, at least under some circumstances.
The threat of harm to the defendant or others must still exist, however. The defendant would not have a defense if the perpetrator throws away his weapon while running away.
Read More: What Is the Stand Your Ground Law?
Self-Defense is an “Affirmative Defense”
The distinction between the California Penal Code provisions and those contained in the state’s jury instructions can be critical at trial. Self-defense is an “affirmative defense” in circumstances when it’s not specifically covered by the penal code.
This means that the defendant is basically saying, “Yes, I committed battery by beating up an individual who threatened me, but I shouldn’t be charged with battery because it was self-defense, and here's why.”
Self-defense can be an affirmative defense against charges of assault, assault with a deadly weapon, battery, aggravated battery, homicide, manslaughter and even battery on a police officer if the officer was using excessive or unwarranted force. (Refs 1, 3)
What the Defendant Must Prove
A defendant seeking exoneration due to self-defense must establish a series of facts, which include:
- He had a reasonable belief that he or someone else was in immediate danger. The threat of danger wasn’t some future, potential event.
- It was reasonable to assume that the use of force was necessary to prevent that danger.
- He used no more force than was reasonably necessary, although this rule is flexible after repeated attacks by the perpetrator on previous occasions.
What’s “Reasonable” in Weighing the Defendant's Actions?
The prevailing word here is “reasonable.” A jury is charged with deciding whether most objective, rational individuals would feel and react in the same way as the defendant did. It’s not a matter of whether the defendant’s actions were right or wrong, but rather of what most other rational people would have done under the same circumstances.
Fairly or unfairly, it’s generally accepted that someone who is mentally ill or suffering from some type of psychological disorder cannot meet the definition of “reasonable belief.” Such an individual therefore has no right to self-defense – with one exception. California law does provide that victims of domestic violence aren’t held to this standard.
The third rule about reasonable force is a bit clearer to define. Shooting someone who’s threatening with his fists would most likely not be considered reasonable, except possibly when the defendant had been threatened by that particular individual before.
When the Defendant Is the “Initial Aggressor”
What if the defendant actually started the altercation or incident that ultimately resulted in him resorting to measures of self-defense? Can he still claim self-defense? It depends.
Maybe he started the fight. The perpetrator then drew a knife, and the defendant promptly threw his hands up in the air and said, “OK, enough. I quit.” The defendant might be exonerated under self-defense laws if the perpetrator didn’t also quit but kept attempting to harm him so he waded back into the fight. The defendant might also have grounds if the perpetrator drew a deadly weapon immediately when the defendant first punched.
There would be no self-defense grounds if the perpetrator also gave up but the defendant resumed the battle anyway.
- Ambrosio E. Rodriguez: California Self-Defense Laws / What You Need to Know
- FindLaw: California Self Defense Laws
- Shouse California Law Group: Self Defense as a Legal Defense Under California Criminal Law
- FizzLaw: California’s Castle Doctrine Compared to Stand Your Ground Law
- California Legislative Information: Penal Code Part I, Title 8, Chapter 198.5
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.