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When is self-defense legal in California?


It is not unusual to feel worried when walking down the street alone in the dark. What if someone attempts to rob you? What if someone with a gun pops out of nowhere? What if you witness someone being assaulted right across the street? What do you do under such circumstances?

Fortunately, California law allows you to act in self-defense in these kinds of situations — but only if you do so with proportional force. In other words, your reaction and use of force have to be reasonable under the circumstances. For instance, using pepper spray on someone who is attempting to snatch your bag would be considered self-defense. However, shooting and killing someone who verbally threatened you from across the street probably would not.

Understanding when a claim of self-defense is valid

Here are three conditions that must be met for self-defense to be justifiable in California:

  1. You had a reasonable fear of harm – while the word “reasonable” is relatively subjective, it implies that any sensible person in your given situation would agree with your assertion that you were facing a genuine threat of harm or death
  2. You believed the harm was imminent – This means that you cannot claim self-defense for assaulting someone you think was likely to harm you in the future. Self-defense is only applicable to immediate threats
  3. You responded to the threat in a reasonable manner – you must prove that the force you used to counter the threat was reasonable and matched the threat in question.

When you cannot argue self-defense in California

The right to claim force in self-defense is subject to a number of exceptions. You cannot argue self-defense under the following circumstances:

  • You provoked the attack or was trespassing on the other person’s property when the attack happened
  • You used deadly force in response to a threat that did not pose death or bodily harm
  • You assaulted a police officer who was procedurally executing an arrest.

When someone is threatening your safety or others around you, the law allows you to fight back to protect yourself or the person in danger. However, in so doing, it is important to know when you can defend yourself legally and when you cannot.

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