Self-defense is one of the most common defense strategies in cases involving assault and other violent crimes. George Zimmerman used it when he faced charges of murdering Trayvon Martin. A police officer in Dallas is claiming self-defense in a controversial case after she shot and killed an unarmed man in his apartment.
News stories every day show alleged offenders going to trial claiming that they acted in self-defense when they shot, stabbed, or caused bodily harm to another person. Because in the heat of the moment, this is entirely plausible. Adrenaline may take over and you might defend yourself using physical violence.
Will this argument actually help you avoid penalties, though? That depends on the specifics of the situation.
Before you use self-defense as a defense strategy against assault charges, know what actually qualifies and whether you should explore other defense strategies.
How Does Texas Define Assault?
You probably intuitively understand that an assault looks different than an act of self-defense – but how exactly?
Know the difference before you start to build your case around self-defense.
Texas law defines assault as any of the following actions:
- intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly causing bodily injury to another
- intentionally or knowingly threatening another with imminent bodily injury
- intentionally or knowingly causing physical contact with another when the person knows or should reasonably believe that the other will regard the contact as offensive or provocative
So, How Can Self-Defense Work as a Defense Strategy for Texas Assault Crimes?
In cases where someone is causing bodily injury to another, the other person is likely to fight back, right? This is where self-defense comes in – but only when you can prove to the jury that the alleged victim was trying to attack you.
If you instigate a fight, the alleged victim fights back, and you claim self-defense, you’re not going to win your case.
Bottom line? You and your criminal defense attorney will need solid proof that the alleged victim was intending to cause bodily injury to you and that you reacted to their aggression.
Elements of Self Defense in Texas
How does a court determine whether or not a person acted in self-defense? They will look for the following elements:
Reasonable Fear of Bodily Harm
If someone was just playing around and you attack them, you probably won’t be able to claim self-defense. The situation before the assault must be one in which a reasonable person would have feared for their safety.
If you felt that someone was putting you or others in fear of imminent danger through threatening force, you may be able to justify your response as self-defense.
Keep in mind that the following do not count as imminent threats:
- Offensive or provocative words that contain no threats
- Threats that have been abandoned
In other words, you cannot attack a person and claim self-defense if they threatened you an hour prior but proceeded to calm down and not be a threat anymore.
It goes even further than that, though. If the alleged victim assaults you, but then ceases to act against you or threaten you, it is not self-defense for you to engage in violence against them at that point. In fact, if someone stops attacking you and you retaliate, you could be found guilty of assault.
Something else to know? It does not matter who the alleged victim of the threats is.
You may be able to use self-defense for using force on someone who was threatening to hurt you, others, or themselves. Additionally, if someone was threatening to attack your property, using force against them may also be considered self-defense. However, if property is involved, the idea of proportional force is crucial to determining your guilt or innocence.
In order for an assault to be justified under Texas law, proportional force must be present. This means that the amount of force used to assault the alleged victim must be proportional to the threats you received. If someone was threatening to slap you on the face, for example, you cannot respond with aggravated assault and claim self-defense.
In some states, alleged victims have a “duty to retreat” before they can fight back. Texas, however, is not one of these states.
Finally, the attack from the alleged victim would have had to be unprovoked. In fact, if you were issuing a threat toward the victim before they began to attack, they might be able to claim self-defense against you.
Assault Charges in Texas Are Serious
Assault charges are serious, especially if deadly force is involved. Moreover, prosecutors will fight tooth and nail to negate the presence of an unprovoked attack, reasonable fear, and the other elements of self-defense.
Because of this, it is important to know that there are other ways to fight back against assault charges if self-defense is not applicable. That being said, a strong strategy involving self-defense could mean the difference between walking free and spending years in jail.
Reach out to an experienced criminal defense attorney for more information on using self-defense or other strategies for avoiding an assault conviction.
About the Author:
Brandon Fulgham has an in-depth understanding of both Texas law and Texans themselves. Before practicing law here, he received his undergraduate degree from TCU, and his law degree from South Texas College of Law in Houston. After graduation, he worked in District Attorneys’ offices as a prosecutor, building cases designed to put people behind bars. Now, he uses that knowledge to protect the rights of people in and around Fort Worth, making sure they receive the strongest possible defense when they find themselves on the wrong side of the law. He has been recognized for his work by The National Trial Lawyers, Fort Worth Magazine, and others.