In each of the 50 states, legal provisions are in place to allow citizens to defend themselves from unlawful attack by another. Self-defense is a legal right derived from the body of natural law upon which constitutional rights are based, but it comes with strict caveats. This subject area is endless with possibilities, nuances, and scenarios, but the following serves as a simple explanation of some basic concepts.

Response in kind

If a person is unlawfully attacked, that person can use force to stop the attack. To be legal, the force used to defend must be roughly equivalent to the force used in the unlawful attack and must not greatly exceed it. If the force rises to a level substantially greater than the force used by the attacker, it becomes unlawful. To illustrate, consider two men of roughly equal size and ability, one of whom attempts to commit a strong-arm robbery against the other. The offender throws clenched fists at the head of the victim and the victim responds in kind, by throwing fists at the head of the other. Here, the force used to defend is likely legal.

Continue the same scenario until the point at which the victim overpowers the attacker, knocking him to the ground senseless and defenseless. If the victim then continues to strike the attacker with blows, the force then becomes unlawful because it becomes “more than is necessary,” as defined in RCW 9A.16.020.

In another version of this scenario, if the victim pulls a knife from his pocket and stabs the attacker, this, too, is unlawful because the stabbing with a knife constitutes deadly force, whereas the force constituting the initial attack is less than deadly force.

What is deadly force?

Deadly force is any force that is likely to cause death or great bodily harm. Great Bodily Harm is defined by RCW 9A.42.010 as “bodily injury which creates a high probability of death, or which causes serious permanent disfigurement, or which causes a permanent or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily part or organ.” In simple terms, force that is likely to cause broken bones, severe lacerations, unconsciousness, permanent disfigurement, and loss of limbs all constitute great bodily harm.

Common examples of deadly force include swinging with a baseball bat or tire iron, stabbing with a knife, striking with a brick, and shooting with a firearm.

Legal deadly force can only be used to defend against an attack involving deadly force. If used against an attack involving less than deadly force, criminal charges will apply.  Also, deadly force can never be used to protect property.

Use of weapons as a threat to defend against attack

Displaying a knife or firearm as a threat to stop a perceived attack could constitute chargeable criminal behavior. RCW 9.41.270 prohibits brandishing a firearm or other deadly weapon “in a manner, under circumstances, and at a time and place that either manifests an intent to intimidate another or that warrants alarm for the safety of other persons.” Unless the perceived threat can be proven after the fact to be a legitimate threat, displaying a weapon could be construed as criminal behavior without an overt act by the perceived offender establishing a threat of harm. Since the actual use of a firearm constitutes deadly force, the display of one against a threat of less than deadly force can constitute an improper and unlawful response under many circumstances.

Get Experienced Legal Representation

If you have been involved in a physical altercation that led to criminal charges, you need a skilled attorney to defend your right to defend yourself. While the right to self-defense is unquestionable, the circumstances surrounding the incident can be extremely difficult to prove after the fact. Contact the experienced criminal defense attorneys at The Nahajski Firm at (206) 621-0500 for a free and confidential initial consultation.