Self Defense

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The law relating to self defense in Pennsylvania can be very useful at trial if the facts and circumstances permit. I have tried over a hundred self defense cases – including murder, attempted murder and aggravated assault cases; many with significant success. The law in this regard is referred to as “Justification” or “Self Protection”.

In Pennsylvania it is legal to use deadly force – which includes the use of a firearm – in certain circumstances. In fact, interestingly, the law of justification in PA does not discriminate against or penalize those who use a firearm in self defense even if that person is not legally permitted or legally licensed to possess a firearm. Thus, if a person acts justifiably in defending themselves, under circumstances permitted by the self defense statute, with a firearm, and does not have a license to possess a firearm, that person cannot be guilty of assault, attempted murder, murder, or other crimes with respect to harming another person. However, that person may be in violation of the law for illegally possessing a firearm. Illegally possessing a firearm carries far less punishment than attempted murder or murder and typically less than aggravated assault.

The use of force upon or toward another person is justifiable when a person believes that such force is immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting himself against the use of unlawful force by another person. A person cannot use excessive force. Under certain circumstances the law imposes a duty to retreat before using deadly force (except while in one’s home which is part of what is known as the “castle doctrine” – you never are required to retreat in your home when using deadly or non deadly force in PA).

The Commonwealth must disprove a properly raised defense of justification beyond a reasonable doubt.

Self defense is legally permitted in cases involving accidental injury to third parties when the injury occurs while the actor is defendant himself.

While there is no burden on the defendant to prove a claim of self-defense, it is nevertheless required that before such a defense is properly in issue at trial, there must be some evidence, from whatever source to justify such a finding. Once the question is properly before the jury, the burden is upon the Commonwealth to prove that the defendant was not actin in self-defense.

A potentially significant evidentiary benefit to raising a self defense defense is that the victim’s character for violence is admissible. This means that convictions of the victim for offenses involving violence, and sometimes arrests of the victim for offenses involving violence, are admitted at trial.

There are many legal nuances to self defense. Raising the defense properly and effectively requires investigation, research and a significant amount of time and effort spent with the client and witnesses. It is vitally important to hire an attorney that is experienced in this regard.


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