Self defense in Washington, D.C.

“Self defense” is the use of force to protect oneself from real or threatened physical harm.  As such, it can be a complete defense to a criminal charge involving threats or violence in Washington, D.C.

Imminent harm and proportional response

The use of force must be necessary to protect against imminent bodily harm.  It is not a defense, for example, that the person faced some unspecified threat in the future. 

The amount of force used must also be “reasonable”; that is, proportional to the threat.  For example, although deadly force can be used to protect oneself from death or serious bodily harm, a person is not allowed to use “excessive force.”

“Excessive force” can be defined as force that is greater than the person actually and reasonably believes to be necessary to protect him/herself.   

 Actual and reasonable belief of harm

In order for a belief justifying self defense to be “reasonable,” the person must actually perceive him- or herself to be in danger of imminent bodily harm.  This is what is called a “subjective” standard – that is, the belief must be held by this specific person based the person’s individual views and experiences.

The belief must also meet the objective standard of a “reasonable person.”  The “reasonable person” is defined as a person “whose notions and standards of behavior and responsibility correspond with those generally obtained among ordinary people in our society at the present time.”  R.F. Heuston, Salmond on the Law of Torts § 56 (17th ed. 1977).

The question is not whether, looking back with detached hindsight, the use of force was necessary.  The question instead is whether the person’s perception of imminent harm under the circumstances was both actually and reasonably held.

Moreover, the defendant can still claim self-defense even if it turns out that the defendant was mistaken with respect to the facts that supported the claim of self-defense. Fersner v. United States, 482 A.2d 387, 391 (D.C. 1984).    

Burden of proof

Where evidence of self-defense – however weak – is present, the burden shifts to the government to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did NOT act in self defense.  See Hernandez v. United States, 853 A.2d 202 (D.C. 2004)(court was required to give self-defense instruction where some evidence supported it, however weak the evidence was).

No duty to retreat

A person in D.C. is not required to retreat from the threat of bodily harm. 

Multiple and/or contradictory defenses

The defendant’s decision to introduce multiple and even contradictory defenses does not jeopardize the availability of a self-defense jury instruction as long as self-defense is reasonably raised by the evidence.  Guillard v. United States, 596 A.2d 60, 62 (D.C. 1991).

Motive/animus toward the complainant

Animus toward the complainant/decedent does not defeat an otherwise valid claim of self-defense.  Parker v. United States, 155 A.3d 835 (D.C. 2017)(“Motive is not separately and additionally considered as a basis for disproving a claim of self-defense”). 

No self-defense for initial aggressor

A person cannot provoke a fight and then claim self-defense unless the person “has previously withdrawn from fray and communicated such withdrawal.”  Harris v. United States, 364 F.2d 701 (D.C. Cir. 1966). 

Defense of others/third party

Every person has the right to use a reasonable amount of force in defense of another if (1) s/he actually believes that the other person is in imminent danger of bodily harm and (2) s/he has reasonable grounds for that belief. 

The focus must be on the intervenor’s, not the third party’s, preception of the situation.  Lee v. United States, 61 A.3d 655, 660 (D.C. 2013).

Defense of property

A person is entitled to use a reasonable amount of force to protect his/her real property from trespass or his/her personal property from theft. 

Innocent possession of firearm in self-defense

A person who would otherwise be ineligible is entitled to possess a firearm is entitled to procure a firearm in lawful self-defense so long as the person “dispossesses [him/herself] of the weapn with reasonable promptness after the need for self-defense has subsided.”  Evans v. United States, 304 A.3d 211 (D.C. 2023).