What is justified use of force?

Justified use of force is a term used to describe a number of affirmative defenses that argue a fact or set of facts, other than those alleged by a plaintiff and if proven by the defendant, diminishes the legal consequences of a defendant's otherwise illegal action. These defenses are varied and typically involve the protection of yourself, other people and property from harm.


The laws that govern self-defense can vary from state to state, but as a rule they allow individuals to use a reasonable amount of force to protect themselves from harm if they are unable to safely walk away from or diffuse a situation.

What constitutes a reasonable amount of force will depend on the circumstances. In general a successful self-defense argument requires you to show three things:

  • You were confronted without provoking someone
  • There was an immediate threat of bodily harm
  • The amount of force you used was reasonable and necessary to avoid the harm

For example, an individual starts an unprovoked fist fight with you and you fight back to protect yourself. Should this person attempt to later press charges against you, you may be able to successfully argue self-defense.

However, if under the same circumstances you use a gun and shoot the person trying to fist fight you, a self-defense argument is likely to fail because the amount of force you used was greater than what was needed to protect yourself in that situation.  In general, deadly force can only be used to repel a deadly attack.

Defense of others

The only difference between self-defense and defense of others is that you are acting to protect someone other than yourself. The elements of a successful defense remain the same, unprovoked confrontation, an immediate threat of bodily harm to another person and the use of a reasonable amount of force to prevent the harm.  As with self-defense, deadly force can only be used to repel a deadly attack.

Defense of property

While policies may differ among states, in general you are permitted to use force to defend your property (typically your home). Your ability to defend property is generally more limited than your ability to defend yourself and others. Depending upon the state you are in, you may be required to attempt a retreat or show that retreat was not possible. As with self-defense, you must show that any force used was reasonable given the circumstances. In recent years many states have moved to adopt castle doctrines which expand a person’s ability to use force in the protection of their home. Castle doctrines typically eliminate the need to retreat and allow a broader use of deadly force to protect your home and its occupants. 

Published on May 05, 2016