Self Defense at Trial in Pennsylvania

Can I claim Self-Defense at Trial in Pennsylvania?

Note: This is an overview of general laws regarding self-defense in Pennsylvania, and does not cover all legal principles associated with self defense, such as the castle doctrine or defense of property. This is meant as an informational overview for someone already charged with a crime of violence, and not as guidance for those trying to determine how to handle future violent encounters. 

If you're charged with a violent crime in Pennsylvania, you may be wondering if you can get your charges dismissed by arguing self-defense. The law of self-defense is known as justification in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and can be found at Title 18, Sections 501 through 510.

With respect to a justification claim, the Defendant essentially admits to engaging in some type of violent conduct but claims he or she was justified in doing it because he was defending himself or someone else at the time. In essence, the Defendant says "I did it, but I was allowed to do it."

There are very specific standards that apply when presenting a self-defense claim in court. Asserting a justification defense requires the services of an experienced criminal defense attorney from the time of your preliminary hearing all the way through trial. 

What type of charges does self-defense apply to? 

In any case where the use of unlawful force is being alleged. Common examples include Homicide, Attempted Homicide, Aggravated Assault, Simple Assault and Simple Assault by Physical Menace. 

Does self-defense get raised at a preliminary hearing? 

No. You can't argue that you acted in self-defense at a preliminary hearing, as the magistrate does not consider defenses in determining whether or not there is prima facie evidence (i.e. probable cause) to support the further prosecution of your case. This is a defense that is presented during the trial of your case. 

However, a skilled criminal defense attorney can lay the groundwork for a self-defense claim at trial through the cross-examination of witnesses. For example, if a victim testifies that he picked up a crowbar and walked in the defendant's direction, this fact can support a later claim by the defendant that he used force to protect himself when he believed the victim would strike him with the crowbar. 

Defense must first raise the issue of self-defense at trial.

In order for the judge or jury to be permitted to consider self-defense, the issue of self-defense must be raised by the Defendant at trial. What this means is that the defense is required to put on some evidence that, if believed, would allow a jury to determine that the legal elements of self-defense were met.

Depending on the facts and circumstances, this can be done through the cross-examination of the prosecution's witnesses, through the testimony of defense witnesses, or through the defendant's testimony. The judge will be required to instruct the jury on self-defense if there is some possible basis for a jury to find that the defendant acted in self defense. 

However, if a defendant denies having used any force against the victim, he can't claim self-defense. For example, a defendant charged in the shooting death of another can't claim he shot a person in self-defense if he denies shooting the person in the first place. 

Once issue raised by Defense, the Prosecution must prove defendant did not act in self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. 

Once enough basic evidence is raised to support a jury instruction of self-defense, the prosecution has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.

What does this mean? Once there's some amount of evidence to support a possibility of self-defense, the Defendant doesn't have to prove anything. The Commonwealth has to prove the defendant did not act in self-defense, and the elements of proof depend on the type of force used.  

Prosecution must prove use of Deadly Force vs. Non Deadly Force

The Commonwealth must first prove what type of force was used in a particular case: deadly force or non-deadly force. Deadly force is defined as force capable of causing death or serious bodily injury, which is injury that causes serious permanent disfigurement or the long term impairment or loss of function of a body part or organ. The prosecution doesn't have to prove death or serious bodily injury, but simply that the force used could have caused death or serious bodily injury. 

To prove use of deadly force, the prosecution must also prove that the defendant knew that his or her actions were capable of causing death or serious bodily injury. For example, a defendant to slaps someone in the face, who suddenly dies as a result cannot be accused of using deadly force because the defendant would not know that a slap would end with such a horrible result.

The type of force used is not always an issue at trial, as a person charged with Simple Assault is not accused of causing or attempting to cause serious bodily injury.  

Overview of Self-Defense Rules for Deadly Force

When the Commonwealth proves that deadly force was used, it must also prove that the use of deadly force was not justified, by proving one of the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt: 

  • No Actual Belief of Danger: The Defendant didn't actually believe that he/she, or another person that he/she was protecting, was in immediate danger of death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping or forced sexual intercourse. 
  • Unreasonable Belief of Danger: The Defendant's belief that he/she, or another person that he/she was protecting, was in immediate danger of death or serious bodily injury was unreasonable under the circumstances. For example, if you are slapped in the face, shooting them under a belief that you're in danger of death or serious injury would be unreasonable. 
  • Provocation: The Defendant engaged in conduct demonstrating an intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, and with this conduct he or she provoked the use of force against himself. The conduct can be the original provocation or an act that continues or escalates a fight. For example, if a defendant pulls a gun out and threatens to shoot someone, and the victim attempts to wrestle the gun away from the defendant and is shot in the process, a jury might conclude that the defendant provoked the use of force against himself. 
  • Retreating: The Defendant knew he or she could avoid using deadly force with complete safety by retreating, but failed to do so. Please keep in mind that the Castle Doctrine - and not this element - is used when someone is inside their own home. 
  • Failing to Surrender Item to Person With Legitimate Claim: The Defendant knew he or she could avoid using deadly force with complete safety by surrendering possession of an item to a person claiming it, and failed to do so. 
  • Failure to Comply With Demand: The defendant failed to comply with a demand to stop doing an action that he or she had no duty to engage in. There are different rules that apply for police. 

Overview of Rules for Self-Defense When Non-Deadly Force Used

When the Commonwealth does not prove that deadly force was used, or it's clear that the case involves only non-deadly force, it will attempt to show that the non-deadly force was not justified by proving one of the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt: 

  • No Reasonable Belief Use of Force Necessary: The defendant didn't reasonably believe that it was immediately necessary for he or she to use force to protect himself, herself or another person against the unlawful use of force by the victim. The prosecution must show the Defendant didn't actually believe he was in danger of becoming a victim of unlawful force, or that his belief was unreasonable under the circumstances. 
  • Provocation: That the defendant provoked the use of force against himself or herself by engaging in conduct showing an intent to use unlawful force against the victim. 

What should I do if I'm facing charges and believe I acted in self-defense? 

The first thing you should recognize if you're charged with a violent crime is that the time for self-help is over. Self-defense claims are very fact specific and unique in every case. The proper handling of your case requires a careful analysis of evidence, testimony and case law by an experienced Pittsburgh criminal defense lawyer. 

The criminal defense attorneys at the Zuckerman Law Firm have prosecuted and defended hundreds of cases in state courts throughout Western Pennsylvania. For a free consultation, call 412-447-5580 today.