Criminal Defense Attorney in Florida: Understanding Self-Defense

What is Self Defense in Florida?*

Self-defense is a legal defense against a violent crime. It justifies a defendant's use of force against another person, on the basis they were protecting themselves against an imminent threat of harm or death.

Imminent Threat*

Self-defense usually requires the defendant to be in fear of immediate harm. This harm could be a verbal or actual threat of physical harm, although offensive words alone are not enough. Once the threat ends, the harm is no longer imminent and the defendant cannot rely on self-defense. 

Reasonable Fear of Harm*

The defendant's fear of harm must also be reasonable. To assess this, the jury considers whether an ordinary and reasonable person in the same situation would have also believed there was an imminent threat of harm. If the answer is no, then self-defense does not apply, although imperfect self-defense may be available to the defendant. 

Proportionate Response*

The defendant's use of force cannot be excessive, it must be proportionate to the threat. For example, if a victim raises their hand to slap a defendant and the defendant shoots at them, this would be an excessive response. For lethal force to be proportionate and therefore justified, the defendant usually must be in fear of death. 

Duty to Retreat*

Some states require a defendant to attempt to escape the harm before resorting to force. Under the duty to retreat, a defendant must demonstrate they had no other choice but to use force.

Castle Doctrine*

Some states have removed the duty to retreat where a defendant is facing an intruder in their home. The castle doctrine permits a defendant to use potentially lethal force in this situation without first attempting to escape the situation. 

Stand Your Ground*

Other states have removed the duty to retreat requirement entirely. These states give the defendant the right to “stand their ground” and resort to using force if they're being threatened or assaulted, even in a public place, without first attempting to escape the harm. 

What Does Imperfect Self-Defense Look Like in Florida?*

Imperfect self-defense usually applies where a defendant kills someone with an honest but unreasonable belief that there was an imminent danger at the time, or that lethal force was necessary to prevent the harm. 

The defense of imperfect self-defense is a partial defense. If successful, it reduces the charge or lessens the penalty. It does not result in the defendant's acquittal. 

Imperfect self-defense is only available in some states.

Burden of Proof for Florida Self-Defense Claim*

Self-defense is an affirmative defense. This means the defendant admits to doing the violent act but argues there was a legal justification for it. How, and to what level, a defendant needs to do this varies between states. 

In criminal cases, the onus is on the prosecution to prove each element of an offense beyond a reasonable doubt. In some states, if a defendant wants to argue self-defense, the burden of proof moves to them to prove self-defense by a “preponderance of the evidence” (i.e. it is more likely true than not). 

We can further explain self defense as an appropriate tool for defending against possible criminal charges.

Reasonable Concern about Potential Risk*

The defendant's fear of harm also needs to be grounded in reality. To determine this, the jury considers the beliefs that an average and reasonable person would have held if they had been placed in the same circumstances as the defendant and given the same information. If the response is no, then the right to self-defense does not apply; nonetheless, the defendant may still be able to assert a claim of self-defense.

Proportionate Response*

The defendant is not allowed to use excessive use of force. It must be in appropriate proportion to the danger. For instance, if a victim raises their hand to slap a defendant and the defendant responds by shooting at them, this would be considered an excessive response on the part of the criminal. In most cases, the defendant must be in reasonable danger of being killed for a fatal force response to be considered proportionate and permissible.

The Obligation to Withdraw*

In some areas, a criminal defendant must attempt to flee the scene of the crime before they can use force. A defendant charged with violating the duty to retreat has the burden of proving that they were left with no other option but to use force.

What Does Inadequate Self-Defense Look Like in the State of Florida?*

When an individual defends himself/herself with the sincere but irrational belief that there was an immediate risk at the moment, or that deadly action was necessary to avoid harm, the defense of imperfect self-defense is typically applicable.

An imperfect self-defense is still a self-defense claim that will require the defendant to prove the reasons for self-defense. If it is successful, it results in a reduction of the charge or a lessening of the penalty; however, the defendant is not acquitted.

Only certain states allow for the practice of imperfect forms of self-defense.

*The specific requirements and restrictions to apply self-defense in criminal cases can vary between states. Some common concepts are highlighted above for educational purposes only, and is not intended to be legal advice. For additional questions, or to schedule an appointment with us, please call us at 813-320-7500.

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