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What Are the Three Elements of Self-Defense?

Is it legal to defend yourself if someone attacks you? Well… it depends on the circumstances.

Let us explain.

Self-defense is a defense based on justification under A.R.S 13-404 and is often used in assault, battery, and any other crimes that involve physical force. It basically means that you are legally allowed to threaten to use or use physical force against another person only if it is immediately necessary to do so against their attack.

Self-defense can be broken down into three elements; the immediacy of your physical force to protect yourself, your use or threatened use of no more physical force than would have appeared necessary, and your justification in the threat or use of physical force only while the danger continues.

First Element of Self-Defense

The first element of self-defense is the immanency of your physical force. It falls on the jury to decide whether a reasonable person would believe that physical force was immediately necessary to protect themselves against the threat or use of attempted, apparent, or actual physical force. They measure your belief against what they think a reasonable person would do in your situation

How did the person assault you? Did they threaten your immediate injury or death? Would a reasonable person think physical force was needed to defend themselves in the same situation?

Do not try to claim self-defense when the threat isn’t immediate. If they threaten to harm you in the future, you cannot use physical force against them and claim self-defense because they haven’t assaulted you yet.

For example, if a person threatens to break your arm next week if you don’t give them money and you punch them in the face and knock them out, that is not considered self-defense. Since their threat is not imminent, there isn’t anything for you to physically defend yourself against.

If someone threatens to or actually assaults you and you did not immediately defend yourself in the moment of the act, you cannot hunt them down later to exact revenge for their earlier assault. This is not immediate and would not be seen as reasonable. A reasonable person would go to the authorities so that they can eliminate the threat.

Second Element of Self-Defense

The second element of self-defense is the necessity of your threat to use or use of physical force. Was your level of physical force the same as their level of threat?

For example, if someone pushes you and you stab them with a knife in return, your level of physical force was excessive and unreasonable to their level of assault. If they point a gun at you, you are allowed to pull out your own gun. If someone punches you and you punch them back, that is reasonable physical force. However, the physical differences of both parties must be considered.

You cannot have used physical force that is more than necessary to defend yourself. Again, reason plays a big role in law: would a reasonable person have done the exact same thing in your situation? Would they have used the same level of physical force?

Third Element of Self-Defense

Your physical force in self-defense must last as long as the assault. If you defended yourself and they stopped assaulting you, you cannot continue to use physical force.

This is considered the third element of self-defense; your use of self-defense only while you are in danger of bodily harm or death. Your self-defense must end when you are no longer in danger. You cannot continue to use physical force against someone who is no longer assaulting you or putting you in danger.

The State has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you did not have justification to commit the act, otherwise the jury must find you not guilty of the charge.

Using Deadly Force in Self-Defense

You may use deadly physical force only if the person threatens serious bodily harm or your immediate death. Your use of deadly force heavily depends on the level of threat. The other person doesn’t have to die for the force to be seen as deadly.

For example, if someone holds a knife to your neck, it is highly probable that they intend to inflict serious bodily harm or kill you. You have every right to use deadly force for your self-defense in this situation because you are in actual danger and this is reasonable fear. You can only use self-defense until the threat is nullified. If you disarm them and knock them out, you cannot continue to assault their body because they are no longer a threat to you.

Self-Defense Exceptions

Sometimes when facing police officers there is an attempt to defend yourself, especially if they are using force. Police officers cannot use excessive force when making the arrest, otherwise you are entitled to use self-defense.  

However, you cannot be resisting arrest even if the arrest the cops are making is unlawful. The rule to this exception might sound unfair but it is better to comply with the arrest than resist and get even more charges against you.

Police officers can only use deadly force if they reasonably believe that you are using deadly force to resist. Cops also have laws to obey. If deadly physical force was used, it would have to be compliant under the justification ARS §13-410.

Another exception is provocation. If you were provoked by threat or use of a physical assault, you can use physical force. Every defense must have a reason, otherwise you will be charged. Your assaulter must have caused you to have a reasonable amount of fear for your harm or death.

You could not have provoked the attack that caused your self-defense. This can be heeded if you provoked the person and they responded with excessive force. You can then use self-defense and claim it in court.

If you provoked the person but did not follow through with your intent and retreated instead and the person still tried to use excessive physical force to assault you, you can use physical force to defend yourself. Your self-defense can be claimed in court if you can prove to the jury that you tried to withdraw from your encounter with them.

You could not use physical force against your attacker if they are only verbally provoking you. In a situation like this, it might be hard not to want to defend yourself against someone insulting you. All you want to do is punch them in the face, but you have to remember that since they are not physically attacking you, you cannot physically defend yourself.

If they provoked you by physically attacking you, only then are you allowed to use physical force to defend yourself. However, the level of your physical defense must be the same or be reasonable to their level of attack.

Self-Defense Conclusion

Assaulting another person is against the law. Self-defense is not against the law. The State needs to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you were committing some kind of assault. They either need to prove that your self-defense was not immediately necessary, your level of physical force was way more than necessary, or you had no justification because there was no threat to begin with.

The best thing to do is to get a criminal defense attorney so they can help you strategize against your charges. They will make things a lot easier for you and a lot less stressful since they know how to fight against the charge.