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Justification for the Use of Force in Self Defense

Question:  I noticed you said in a previous post that if someone swung at you, you have the right to use force to defend yourself.  What if one or more people grab you and make you fear for your safety by threatening to harm you in a non-lethal way?  Do you have the right to strike them or defend yourself from them before they strike you?

Answer:  Before I answer the question, let me reset the stage for readers that might not be familiar with my previous post.  In order to use any type of force in self defense, a person must be under a credible threat of force or a perpetrator must either use force or attempt to use force against you.  Words alone, no matter how nasty, provocative or threatening are not ever a justification for the use of force.

The level of force you can use against another must be reasonable and measured based on the circumstances of the threat.  The purpose of your use of force is to stop the threat or use of force against you.  Once the threat has ended, your use of force must end as well.  If you continue to use force in the absence of a threat, you run the risk of becoming the ‘aggressor’ and potentially turning the tables against yourself.

There are also many factors that can enter into the use of force equation.  These things generally fall under a concept called ‘Disparity of Force’.  Some of the factors that enter into a ‘disparity of force’ situation can include:

  • Age – if there is a substantial age different between the victim and the perpetrator, additional force may be appropriate to provide a force multiplier to the disadvantaged person.  For example, a man in his 60′s might need to use additional force to effectively eliminate a threat from another man in his 30′s.
  • Numbers – if there are multiple perpetrators that are threatening or using force against a single individual, then that individual might need to use an enhanced level of force to end the threat.
  • Physical Disability – if the person being threatened is disabled to the extent that they cannot run away or effectively defend themselves against a threat, again, additional force may be appropriate to eliminate the threat.
  • Size – if there is a significant size difference between a person being threatened and the person doing the threatening, that might be justification for using a higher level of force to end the threat.
  • Sex – if a woman is being attacked by a man, regardless of the size or age of either party, the law generally permits a woman to use an enhanced level of force to defend herself, up to and including lethal force,  if she is in reasonable fear of sexual assault or serious injury.

Disparity of force issues are not limited to these factors alone.  Many other factors or combination of factors may come into play in the court making a determination of whether or not a particular use of force was justified or not.  You must understand that there is no ‘bright line’ here.  This is a gray area where the factors involved will be considered by a judge or jury in their determination of whether your actions were ‘reasonable’ in light of the circumstances and were appropriate to the level of threat experienced.

Now, to specifically answer your question.  If someone grabs you without your permission, you are being assaulted.  Simple assault in Arizona is defined as:

  1. Intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causing any physical injury to another person; or
  2. Intentionally placing another person in reasonable apprehension of imminent physical injury; or
  3. Knowingly touching another person with the intent to injure, insult or provoke such person.

If someone commits assault under the conditions described under item 1, they are committing a Class 1 Misdemeanor which is punishable by a jail term of 6 months and a fine of up to $2,500.

If someone commits assault under the conditions described under item 2, they are committing a Class 2 Misdemeanor which is punishable by a jail term of 4 months and a fine of up to $750.

If someone commits assault under the conditions described under item 3, they are committing a Class 3 Misdemeanor which is punishable by a jail term of 30 days and a fine of up to $500.

You do have the right to defend yourself using a threat of force or physical force if necessary, but nothing you described would allow you to use anything greater than physical force unless you believed that you were in danger of serious injury, permanent disabling injury or death.  My guess is that people that do as you described are trying to intimidate you or are bullies that enjoy making other people afraid.

If you are not trained in some type of self-defense skill, any resistance on your part is likely to result in escalation which could result in potentially much more serious consequences for you.  You might want to consider carrying some non-lethal defensive device.  My choice would probably be a high quality pepper spray from either Fox Labs or ASP.  They make key chain devices that when deployed, can make it very unpleasant for your assailants.  Pepper spray will effectively disable an attacker for 30-45 minutes, giving you plenty of time to get to safety and call 911.

My first recommendation is to not put yourself in the situation if you can avoid it.  If possible, just remove yourself from the vicinity.  Get in your car and drive away or if you are on foot, walk or even run away if necessary.  I can’t begin to tell you the number of bad situations that result from men letting their testosterone dictate their actions in a confrontation.  You can also try to control your anger and de-escalate the situation.  I have used this technique with great success myself many times.

If you cannot leave and cannot de-escalate, do anything you can to attract the attention of any onlookers or witnesses.  Scream or call for help and get on your cell phone and call 911.  Tell them to send the police immediately and give your location.  If your attackers are bullies, they will probably not hang around for long.  If they don’t leave and continue to press the attack, this might be the time to consider using your pepper spray on them.

If they do attempt to harm you in any way and you know who they are, you should call the police and press assault charges.

One final note:  If at anytime you feel that you are in real danger of being seriously injured or killed, or the perpetrators have taken up a weapon or ‘dangerous instruments’ like a stick, bat, rock, bottle or anything similar, the simple assault has moved to an aggravated assault which is a felony.  At this point, unless you are armed, your primary objective should be to get away at all costs.  Even if you are injured while getting away, it is better than trying to fight your way out and be more seriously injured or killed.  Get to a place with lots of people and call 911.

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