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Justification or "Self Defense" in PA

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The concept of self defense is very limited in PA and only applies in specific situations.

By Attorney Elisabeth K.H. Pasqualini, Criminal Defense Lawyer, Harrisburg, PA

The Trayvon Martin case has breathed new life into the concept of a legal defense, such as justification.  Justification means that an act, which would otherwise be a crime, can be legally sanctioned and, therefore, not a crime.  It excuses the criminal intent or mens rea.  Justification is a broader category that sometimes encompasses that which is referred to as "self defense."

The Pennsylvania Crimes Code embraces the concept that conduct which would otherwise constitute a crime can be excused when necessary to prevent a greater harm or crime.  Conduct which the actor believes to be necessary to avoid a harm or evil to oneself or to another is justifiable if the harm or evil sought to be avoided by such conduct is greater than that sought to be prevented by the law defining the offense charged.  However, neither the Crimes Code nor any other law defining the offense provides exceptions or defenses dealing with the specific situation involved.

The Courts' take on this...

The Supreme Court ruled that "[i]n order ... to be entitled to an instruction on justification as a defense to a crime charged, the actor must first offer evidence that will show:

  1. That the actor was faced with a clear and imminent harm, not one which is debatable or speculative;
  2. That the actor could reasonably expect that the actor's actions would be effective in avoiding this greater harm;
  3. That there is no legal alternative which will be effective in abating the harm; and
  4. That the Legislature has not acted to preclude the defense by a clear and deliberate choice regarding the values at issue."

That's all well and good, but what does it mean?

Clear and imminent

The danger must be readily apparent and recognizable to reasonable persons. The defense cannot be permitted to justify acts to foreclose speculative and uncertain dangers, and is therefore limited in application to acts directed at the avoidance of harm that is reasonably certain to occur.

For instance, I can rush onto a school bus in violation of the law, to protect my son if I reasonably believe that he is suffering from a medical emergency.  (See Tara Keener case).

But, I cannot carry a gun in violation of the law when I get threatend by someone over the phone.  A reasonable person would contact the police when the fear of attack is not immediate.  There is a legal alternative to a violation of the law as well.  I can call the police.

Reasonable expectation

The actions taken to avoid the disaster must also support a reasonable belief or inference that the actions would be effective in avoiding or alleviating the impending harm.

Where the defendants were charged with trespassing for holding a sit-in demonstration at a nuclear power plant, and claimed their actions were justifiable because they believed the actions to be necessary to avert a nuclear disaster, the trial court was correct in ruling that justification was not available as a defense in this case, because the danger was not imminent, and the defendants' actions did not, and could not, have halted the operation of the plant.

If you've been arrested for the commission of an assault or other crime against a person or property and you had a good reason to do it, do not speak to the police before you counsel with a lawyer.  It's important to have an understanding of the facts known to you at the time before speaking with police.  You may contact Shaffer & Engle Law Offices, LLC toll free or email us today.

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