Self-Defense in a D.C. Assault Case
by Jamison Koehler on June 9, 2010
Self-defense is the use of force to protect oneself, one’s family or one’s property from a real or threatened attack. It is an affirmative defense, meaning that the defendant has the initial burden of raising it. In D.C., once the defendant has been able to introduce sufficient evidence of self-defense, it then becomes the government’s burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant’s actions were NOT carried out in self-defense.
According to the Criminal Jury Instructions for the District of Columbia, there are a number of requirements for the use of self-defense in D.C. The first requirement is that the amount of force used be “reasonable.” In the case of “nondeadly force,” “reasonable” is defined as that amount of force that is necessary to protect oneself from imminent bodily harm. This suggests that an element of proportionality. A person may also use “deadly force” in order to protect oneself from imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm.
The second requirement is that the danger of bodily harm be “imminent.” In other words, the threat must be of immediate harm, not harm at some time in the future. This means that the person feeling threatened is not empowered to remove him- or herself from the situation and then to return to the scene, possibly with a weapon, to continue the altercation. The person should try to “step back” or “walk away” if possible; once out of harm’s way, the justification for self-defense disappears. At the same time, D.C. law does not require a person “to retreat or to consider retreating” when faced with the danger of death or serious bodily harm.
The third requirement is the threat of either “bodily harm” or “serious bodily harm.” While the jury instructions do not specify what constitutes “bodily harm,” “bodily injury” has been defined as any physical injury, however slight, to include an “offensive touching.” “Significant bodily injury” has been defined as an injury that requires hospitalization or immediate medical attention.
The fourth requirement is that the person asserting self-defense actually believed that he or she was in danger. This is what is referred to in the law as a “subjective standard”; it is not what someone else felt or may have felt, but what this particular person felt. The only requirement in this regard is that the belief was held honestly.
The fifth and final requirement is that the person asserting self-defense had reasonable grounds for that belief. This is the “objective standard”; that is, it doesn’t depend on the perceptions of this particular person but on how a “reasonable person” in the defendant’s position would perceive the situation.
The Jury Instructions also point out that, in assessing the defendant’s perceptions of the situation, the proper standard is not assess retroactively how the defendant should have perceived the situation but, instead, how the defendant reasonably could and honestly did perceive the situation at the time. The Instructions also specify that the reasonable and honest standard can apply to a person acting in the heat of passion: “In the heat of passion, a person may actually and reasonably believe something that seems unreasonable to a calm mind.”