What Are the Self Defense Laws in Pennsylvania?

Self defense is a touchy subject in today’s society. Our school systems today institute a ‘zero tolerance’ policy where fights between children result in punishment of everyone involved. If schools are that strict, what must the laws on the matter be like? We’re taking the time today to dive into this subject to explain exactly what self defense entails and what your rights are regarding the matter.

Let’s start by defining what self defense is. Dictionary.com holds three similar definitions:

  1.  The act of defending one’s person when physically attacked, as by countering blows or overcoming an assailant.
  2.  A claim or plea that the use of force or injuring or killing another was necessary in defending one’s own person from physical attack.
  3. An act or instance of defending or protecting one’s own interests, property, ideas, etc., as by argument or strategy.

Plainly put, self defense is an act taken to protect yourself should someone attack you. There are some intricacies to this that we’ll get into, but know up front that in cases of self defense, the burden of proof is not on you. This was not always the case. Up until recently Pennsylvania had what is referred to as a Duty to Retreat. This meant that in a situation where you were put in harms way by another individual, you had to have taken reasonable steps to avoid conflict prior to using force. In theory, this would have cut back on situations where self defense was needed in the first place, but many states are beginning to see that it instead puts undue duress on the victim in cases of self defense.

Pennsylvania Law That is similar to the “Stand Your Ground” Law

Pennsylvania now has laws in place that more closely reflect Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Defendants in self defense cases no longer have the burden of proof on their shoulder’s, but rather the prosecution has to show that the defendant did not act in self defense. This grants further protection to individuals who are attacked and take potentially deadly measures against their assailants. This does not mean, however, that you can take deadly measure against just anyone who might assault you. The force you use has to be commensurate with the force you are threatened with. If someone attacks you with their fists for example, you are not permitted to counter with a deadly weapon, but you could counter with your fists. If someone were to attack you with a knife, deadly force could be acceptable. It’s all about reacting in a way in which a reasonable person should react. This could potentially lead to actions made on a mistaken belief. Suppose it’s dark out and somebody is coming at you with what you believe to be a knife in their hand and you fire upon them. You later find that they were throwing a punch with their cell phone in their hand. A cell phone is not commensurate with a gun, but in the moment, you believed your life was in peril. In cases such as this, a jury is called upon to put themselves in your shoes in the exact moment and discuss how a reasonable person would react. They are prohibited from using hindsight in the matter. Now surely this only applies if you’re not the instigator in an altercation, right? Not so! Let’s say you get in a heated discussion and in the moment you decide “Let’s throw down! Right here, right now!” and you’re unlucky enough that your counterpart wants to oblige. If you take measures to back out of the altercation at that point and show you don’t wish to fight, you are allowed to defend yourself afterward, similar to the original duty to retreat.

The  “Castle Doctrine”

Building on these laws, Pennsylvania has instituted what is known as the “Castle Doctrine.” The Castle Doctrine states that it is assumed deadly force is reasonable in three specific cases:

  • If someone is in the process of unlawfully entering your home, work, or occupied vehicle.
  • If someone has unlawfully entered your home, work, or occupied vehicle.
  • If someone tries to unlawfully remove you from your home, work, or occupied vehicle.

If you are indicted in a case in which you’ve taken deadly force upon someone in these scenarios, the law protects you as the Castle Doctrine presumes that deadly force was necessary. This places a huge burden on the prosecution to prove that your actions were unreasonable given the circumstances. When the law itself is stating the use of deadly force is reasonable, however, it makes it almost impossible to prove the contrary. If you find yourselfcharged with a violent offense, it’s important to have a lawyer who knows and understands all there is to know about self defense laws. The right lawyer can mean the difference between years in prison and an acquittal. Contact the Law Office of Roy Galloway to have an aggressive and experienced attorney on your side.