Self-Defense and Lawful Use of Force

Self-defense can be raised as a defense in cases concerning numerous charges including murder, manslaughter, assault, and other charges. RCW 9A.16.020 is the basic statute concerning self-defense. The statute provides basic circumstances where force may be lawfully used including force used to prevent injury, a malicious trespass, or other malicious interference with property. See RCW 9A.16.020.

The Washington Supreme Court has concluded that self-defense negates elements concerning intent, knowledge, and even recklessness. Because self-defense is not illegal and negates such elements, the prosecution will have the burden of proving the absence of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. State v. McCullum, 98 Wash.2d 484 (1983). But in order to obtain a jury instruction on self-defense the defense must provide at least “some evidence” or “any evidence” of self-defense in order to be entitled to a jury instruction on self-defense. McCullum, 98 Wash.2d at 488; State v. Roberts, 88 Wash.2d 337, 346 n. 30 (1977); State v. Gogolin, 45 Wash.App. 640, 643 (Wash. Ct. App. 1986); State v. Redwine, 72 Wash.App. 625, 630 (Wash. Ct. App. 1994). However, this is an exceptionally low burden of production. There is no need that there be the amount of evidence necessary to create a reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors. McCullom, 98 Wash.2d at 488. A trial court will be justified in denying a request for a self-defense instruction only where no credible evidence appears in the record to support a defendant’s claim of self-defense. McCullum, 98 Wash.2d at 488, 656 P.2d at 1068; Roberts, 88 Wash.2d at 346, 562 P.2d at 1264; Gogolin, 45 Wash.App. at 643.

WPIC 17.02 is the Pattern Jury Instruction concerning lawful use of force for charges other than homicide. In short, force is lawful when used by a person who reasonably believes he or she is about to be injured and when the force is not more than is necessary. See 11 Wash. Prac. Pattern Jury Instr. Crim. WPIC 17.02 (3d Ed). The language “reasonably believes” reflects both objective and subjective standards. The person utilizing the force must actually believe he or she is about to be injured. Additionally, a reasonably prudent person in the same position must likewise hold such a belief under the same or similar conditions as they appeared to the person utilizing the force, taking into consideration all of the facts and circumstances known to the person at the time of the incident. See 11 Wash. Prac. Pattern Jury Instr. Crim. WPIC 17.02 (3d Ed). Ultimately, one’s own personal belief is not enough. Use of force must also be objectively reasonable under the circumstances based on the facts and circumstances known to the person utilizing the force. Nevertheless, the prosecution will have the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the force was not lawful. The jury will have a duty to return a verdict of not guilty if the prosecution fails to prove the absence of self-defense. This may oftentimes be a very difficult burden for the prosecution to meet.

Lawful use of force defenses may be raised in contexts other than self-defense. For example, use of force may also be lawful when used by a person who reasonably believes a third person is about to be injured. See, e.g., 11 Wash. Prac., Pattern Jury Instr. Crim. WPIC 17.02 (3d Ed). Use of force may also be lawful when preventing or attempting to prevent a malicious trespass or other malicious interference with property. See, e.g., 11 Wash. Prac., Pattern Jury Instr. Crim. WPIC 17.02 (3d Ed). Also, a parent or guardian’s moderate and reasonable physical discipline of a child may also be lawful. See, e.g., 11 Wash. Prac., Pattern Jury Instr. Crim. WPIC 17.07 (3d Ed).

RCW 9A.16.110 makes it possible for defendants asserting self-defense to seek reimbursement for legal fees, costs, and expenses incurred as a result of defending against prosecution. However, the burden is distinct from the prosecution’s burden to prove the absence of lawful use of force. The statute requires the defense to prove self-defense by a preponderance of the evidence in order to be reimbursed for legal fees, costs, and expenses.

Contact the criminal defense lawyers of Platt & Buescher today to discuss your self-defense claim against criminal charges. The criminal defense attorneys of Platt & Buescher serve Seattle, King County, Oak Harbor, Island County, and Skagit, Snohomish, and Whatcom counties as well as greater western Washington.