When it’s assault, and when it’s self-defense

Posted by Brian SheffermanSep 01, 2021

Every once in a while, people find themselves in situations where it seems like they must fight somebody to protect themselves or a loved one from harm. Even though you felt you were justified, you can still find yourself arrested on assault charges. At this point, you would be wondering what happened to your right to self-defense.

It's true that self-defense is a valid defense to many violent criminal charges in Maryland and Washington D.C., but the definition of true self-defense is fairly narrow. Incidents that might sound like self-defense to you might be treated like assault by police and prosecutors.

Four elements of self-defense, plus the duty to retreat

In Maryland, to successfully use a self-defense argument to overcome criminal charges, you must prove the following:

  • You had a reasonable belief that you were in imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm from another person
  • You had an actual belief you were in danger
  • You did not provoke the danger and were not the aggressor
  • You used reasonable force, not more than required, to end the danger

You may have heard of “stand your ground” laws that some states have. These laws allow you to use force to protect yourself even in situations where you could have escaped. Like many states, Maryland does not have a stand your ground law. This means you have a duty to retreat from a potentially dangerous confrontation if you possibly can. For example, if someone threatens you in the street, the law expects you to walk (or run) away unless the person or people threatening you have you cornered, and the four factors above apply. Then reasonable force — possibly including lethal force — is justified.

Reasonable force or assault?

But what is “reasonable” force can be tough to figure out in the moment. The Baltimore Sun recently shared the story of a man who is facing up to 25 years in prison on felony assault charges for attacking a stranger who had broken into his apartment and passed out on the couch. The man woke up the intruder and asked who he was. According to the man's defense attorney, the intruder lunged toward his client, who responded by punching and kicking him until he was subdued. A bench warrant was later issued against the apartment dweller.

This does not mean that you can never invoke self-defense to get charges against you dropped or dismissed at trial. But doing so does not automatically make the charges go away, even if you are sure your actions were necessary.