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The Fine Line Between Assault & Self-Defense

The Fine Line Between Assault & Self-Defense

Violence can happen suddenly, and it is rarely a planned event. An individual can be sitting peacefully one moment, then the next find him or herself embroiled in a violent confrontation. When violence happens, there is a fine line between assault and self-defense that is important to understand.

The difference between self-defense and assault is a topic that is taking center stage in the news as police in Denmark review the case of a young girl who used pepper spray to ward off an attempted rape.  The attack on the 17-year-old girl occurred in the town of Sonderborg. When she was attacked, she pulled pepper spray from her purse and used it. However, pepper spray is illegal to possess in Denmark, and police threatened to fine her for exercising her right to self-defense.

While this recent case occurred on foreign shores, similar cases have occurred numerous times in the United States. Over the years, the possession or use of pepper spray by individuals has been approved within all fifty states. However, its use as a weapon of self-defense is tightly restricted within Washington, DC, California, Wisconsin, Michigan, Massachusetts, and New York.

Assault Defined

Minnesota law prescribes five degrees of assault that can be committed by an individual. These are defined as follows:

  1. First Degree – Applied when the assault causes severe bodily harm or death to an individual.
  2. Second Degree – Involves assault with a deadly weapon such as a knife or a gun that results in considerable physical harm.
  3. Third Degree – Involves the substantial infliction of harm upon an individual, such as in cases of child abuse.
  4. Fourth Degree – Applied when an EMT, nurse, firefighter, or other public official is assaulted or if the assault involves bias.
  5. Fifth Degree – Applied when an individual attempts to cause bodily harm, fear, or death in another individual.

The Right to Self-Defense

Minnesota Statue 609.06 authorizes individuals to use force to defend their physical person and personal property. The law allows parents, guardians, teachers, caregivers, etc. to protect children or individuals they are responsible for. Minnesota allows individuals to use weapons such as firearms, knives, pepper spray, or tasers to defend themselves so long as the situation warrants a commiserate level of force to that which is being applied by an attacker.

As Minneapolis criminal defense lawyers know, an individual may use force to halt an assault, but they must cease their activities the moment a threat has been eliminated. For instance, if an attacker with a gun is disarmed or wounded to the point where they cannot use their weapon, then the person claiming self-defense must cease defensive activity. Actions beyond this point are not considered self-defense, they are considered assault.

Reasonable Force

State law stipulates that an individual may use reasonable force to defend themselves, loved ones, or physical property that they own. This means that individuals are allowed to respond with a level of force that is sufficient to protect themselves from harm. For instance, if a man hits another man’s wife, the aggrieved husband may take reasonable measures to protect his wife and extricate her from the situation. It does not mean that he can pull out a firearm and shoot him. In cases where a reasonable force defense is used, the individual will need to show that the level of force applied to the situation was adequate but not excessive.

Duty to Retreat

There is not a Minnesota stand your ground law. Instead, Minnesota state law requires individuals to retreat from violent confrontation whenever it is reasonable to do so. This is an important contrast to states that have adopted “stand your ground” laws and it means that if a person can escape the confrontation, they must exercise that opportunity.

However, most attacks occur suddenly and an individual may not have the opportunity to properly assess their ability to escape. Moreover, it can be difficult to determine whether retreat is possible when there is more than one person involved, or if the safety of physical property such as their home is in jeopardy. In many cases, the answer is not black and white which is why it is important to work closely with a Minneapolis criminal defense lawyer when facing an assault charge.

For this reason, this can be a considerably grey area that is open to interpretation. Indeed, there have been a number of times where the “castle doctrine” has been attempted in the state. Most notably, the doctrine was tested in the Byron David Smith case when Smith shot and killed two teenagers who had broken into his home.

In the Smith case, the court ruled that while Smith didn’t have a duty to retreat, he did use excessive force that resulted in the unnecessary deaths of Haile Kifer and Nicolas Brady. He was convicted even though state law states that an individual doesn’t have to retreat from an invasion or confrontation taking place within their home or business.

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