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Can you go to jail for self defense?

Can you go to jail for self defense

Protecting yourself, your property or others from imminent harm by other people is a right enshrined in law, but can you go to jail for self defense?.

In certain instances, self-defense can end in the attacker sustaining serious injuries or even death, and in such a situation a person may entertain fears of going to jail for taking the life of or seriously injuring another person, albeit in genuine act of self-defense.

Across the US, states have their own self-defense laws that are based on the same core principle. The position of these laws on self-defense is clear, but there are caveats to these laws that if ignored, could land a person in jail.

In this article, we break down the California self-defense law for your understanding, discuss some instances where self-defense applies, when it doesn’t and the instances in which you can go to jail for self defense. Keep reading to know more.

What is self-defense?

Self-defense is a form of valid and legal defense a person accused of a crime or standing trial can use to counter the accusations. Even though harming another person is a criminal offense, a person who does so in self-defense admits to committing the offense but justifies their action using the right to Self-defense.

California Self-defense law

In California, self-defense is a valid defense for many crimes including instances where death results. California allows a person to use a reasonable and necessary force in defense of self, property or others when one reasonably believes they’re under threat of serious bodily harm.

Self-defense is a valid legal defense in many criminal cases such as:

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In effect, the accused makes the case that:

  • They indeed harmed another person using force or violence,
  • They did so in defense of themselves, their property or another person from imminent harm from the victim.

Elements of self-defense

A valid self-defense claim must have certain elements. These are:

1. Imminent danger

Self-defense is a viable defense when force or violence is used in a situation where a person, their property or another person is in imminent danger of serious bodily harm or peril from an aggressor. The danger must be real, present at the time and not what could happen in the future.

Example 1: During a basketball game, John aggressively goads Joe on and pushes him. He then goes to punch Joe. Joe swiftly grabs a chair and strikes John, knocking him out. John loses a tooth in the process. (Under the circumstances, Joe was facing imminent danger)

Example 2: From example 1, say John, after taunting Joe, told him he would hit him next time they meet at the basketball court. (Under the circumstance, the threat of harm is not imminent and wouldn’t warrant the use of force or violence for defense in that instance).

2. Reasonable belief that an imminent threat exist

For a claim of self-defense to be valid, the defendant must have believed strongly at the time and under the circumstances that there existed an imminent threat. The keyword here is reasonable belief (a belief can be reasonable but not necessarily true). The force or violence used must have been reasonably necessary in the situation to defend oneself, their property or others from imminent danger.

3. Reasonable force

During self-defense, the force or violence used must have been reasonable to defend against the imminent harm or peril. It is this element that can result in what is known as imperfect self-defense when excessive force is used.

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4. No need to retreat

California is a “Stand your ground” state, therefore a person doesn’t have to retreat from the imminent danger before their action qualifies as self-defense. Even though retreating from an imminent danger may be a safer option, it is not a requirement.

In states where there is a duty to retreat, you’re required to satisfy the requirement of safe retreat.

5. Initial Aggressor

In this final element of self-defense, a person’s action will qualify as self-defense even if they were the initial aggressor. The requirements are that:

  • They made effort to calm the situation following the initial aggression
  • The other person responded to the initial non-lethal force with a deadly force.

Example: John picks a fight with Joe at the Mall, and pushes him against the shelves. Joe in response stabs John with a pocket knife and rushes to try and stab him again.. But John is quick to get his firearm out and shoot Joe dead in self-defense. In this instance, even though John was the initial aggressor, Joe escalated the situation by using lethal force and John’s action will qualify as self-defense.

Can you go to jail for self defense?

Self-defense is a right under the law, hence one will not go to jail for exercising this right, but there is a caveat. The act of self-defense must satisfy the elements outlined under the law.

For example, in a situation where a person uses deadly force which is not reasonably necessary to diffuse the imminent threat, it becomes an imperfect self-defense. In such situation, instead of a person facing murder charges, they would rather be charged with voluntary manslaughter which carries a prison sentence.

What is imperfect self-defense?

Imperfect self-defense refers to a situation where an accused person used excessive force than necessary in an act of self-defense, that leads to the death of the other person. Such a case doesn’t qualify as murder neither does it satisfy the elements of a perfect self-defense.

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Example: John enters a bar, pulls a toy-weapon and points it at Joe. Joe believing the toy-weapon to be real, pulls out his firearm and shoots John. Here, Joe’s need for self-defense is honest based on the perceived threat, but his action is unreasonable since it was only a toy-weapon.

While prosecutors may want to pursue murder charges, John can argue that his actions were an instance of imperfect self-defense. Even though that wouldn’t mean an acquittal, if accepted, John would face the lesser charge of Voluntary manslaughter.

Penalties for voluntary manslaughter vary from state to state. In California for example, voluntary manslaughter punishment under the Penal Code 192(a) PC is prison time between 3 and 11 years.

Can you go to jail for self defense UK?

Using reasonable force to defend yourself or others from an attacker or an intruder in your home is lawful in the UK. A person in his/her home is not required to wait to be attacked by an intruder before defending. However, one can be prosecuted under the following circumstances:

  • If you continue to attack the intruder even when you and/or others are no longer in danger,
  • pre-plan a trap for someone instead of involving the UK police.


In answering the question “Can you go to jail for self defense?”, we have come to know that self-defense is legal under the law even in cases where death results. But there elements that must be met else an act of self-defense which results in death could be determined to be imperfect, in which case a person will face voluntary manslaughter charges which carries prison sentence.


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