Self-defense is defined as the right to prevent suffering force or violence through the use of a sufficient level of counteracting force or violence. This definition is simple enough on its face, but it raises many questions when applied to actual situations.
For instance, what is a sufficient level of force or violence when defending oneself? What goes beyond that level? What if the intended victim provoked the attack? Do victims have to retreat from the violence if possible? What happens when victims reasonably perceive a threat even if the threat doesn’t actually exist? What about when the victim’s apprehension is subjectively genuine, but objectively unreasonable? Force can only be used to stop an imminent use of unlawful force. A person is justified in threatening or using force against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that force or a threat of force is necessary to defend the person or a third person against another person’s imminent use of unlawful force. Deadly force is only justified to stop death, seriously bodily injury, or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony. A person is justified in using force intended or likely to cause death or serious bodily injury only if the person reasonably believes that force is necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury to the person or a third person as a result of another person’s imminent use of unlawful force, or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
No Duty to Retreat (Stand Your Ground)
A person does not have a duty to retreat from the force or threatened force in a place where that person has lawfully entered or remained.
Is the Threat Imminent?
As a general rule, self-defense only justifies the use of force when it is used in response to an immediate threat. The threat can be verbal, as long as it puts the intended victim in an immediate fear of physical harm. Offensive words without an accompanying threat of immediate physical harm, however, do not justify the use of force in self-defense. Moreover, the use of force in self-defense generally loses justification once the threat has ended. For example, if an aggressor assaults a victim but then ends the assault and indicates that there is no longer any threat of violence, then the threat of danger has ended. Any use of force by the victim against the assailant at that point would be considered retaliatory and not self-defense.
Was the Fear of Harm Reasonable?
Sometimes self-defense is justified even if the perceived aggressor didn’t actually mean the perceived victim any harm. What matters in these situations is whether a “reasonable person” in the same situation would have perceived an immediate threat of physical harm. The concept of the “reasonable person” is a legal conceit that is subject to differing interpretations in practice, but it is the legal system’s best tool to determine whether a person’s perception of imminent danger justified the use of protective force. To illustrate, picture two strangers walking past each other in a city park. Unbeknownst to one, there is a bee buzzing around his head. The other person sees this and, trying to be friendly, reaches quickly towards the other to try and swat the bee away. The person with the bee by his head sees a stranger’s hand dart towards his face and violently hits the other person’s hand away. While this would normally amount to an assault, a court could easily find that the sudden movement of a stranger’s hand towards a person’s face would cause a reasonable man to conclude that he was in danger of immediate physical harm, which would render the use of force a justifiable exercise of the right of self-defense. All this in spite of the fact that the perceived assailant meant no harm; in fact, he was actually trying to help!
Sometimes a person may have a genuine fear of imminent physical harm that is objectively unreasonable. If the person uses force to defend themselves from the perceived threat, the situation is known as “imperfect self-defense.” Imperfect self-defense does not excuse a person from the crime of using violence, but it can lessen the charges and penalties involved. Not every state recognizes imperfect self-defense, however. For example, a person is waiting for a friend at a coffee shop. When the friend arrives, he walks toward the other person with his hand held out for a handshake. The person who had been waiting genuinely fears that his friend means to attack him, even though this fear is totally unreasonable. In order to avoid the perceived threat, the person punches his friend in the face. While the person’s claim of self-defense will not get him out of any criminal charges because of the unreasonable nature of his perception, it could reduce the severity of the charges or the eventual punishment.
“Reasonableness” as a Factor in Utah Self Defense Criminal Cases According to Utah criminal law, you may be justified in either threatening or actually using force against another to the extent that you reasonably believe that such force is necessary to defend against the use of unlawful force by another person. This requirement of reasonableness in the use of force means that the level of force you may use can depend on the specific circumstances of your case. The specific threat you are facing can be a major factor in determining whether your use of force will be considered reasonable. A person facing an assailant who is threatening the use of a gun would likely be entitled to use more and different kinds of force than would be a person who faced an assailant who was unarmed. Similar legal principles apply both to cases of self-defense as well as using force to defend a third person.
Restrictions on the Use of Force in Self Defense in Utah
While Utah’s self-defense laws are fairly broad, there are restrictions on a person’s ability to use self-defense or defense of another as a defense in a criminal case. You may not use force in defending yourself if you are “attempting to commit, committing, or fleeing after the commission or attempted commission of a felony.” You may not use force to defend yourself if you initially and intentionally provoked the other person use of force with the intent to use that force as an excuse to “inflict bodily harm upon the assailant.” You also may not use force in defending yourself if you were the initial aggressor or were engaged in mutual “combat by agreement,” unless you have withdrawn from the fight and effectively communicated that fact to the other person.
Use of Deadly Force as a Defense in Utah Criminal Cases
Utah law allows you to use deadly force (“force intended or likely to cause death or serious bodily inure”) only under circumstances where you reasonably believe that such force is necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury to yourself or another, or to “prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”
Use of Force in Defense of Home or Other Property in Utah
A person may also be entitled to use force in defending their home or other property. But the criminal law relating to the use of force in defense of a home or force in defense of property are different. Utah criminal law places significant restrictions on both the level of force that can be used and under what circumstances that force can be used.
Utah’s Self-Defense Statute
Utah’s self-defense law is found in the Utah Criminal Code at section 76-2-402. Under this code, a person can use force when he or she reasonably believes it’s necessary to prevent harm. The danger presented must be imminent in nature and serious enough to cause injury or death. Force is also justified to prevent a forcible felony. This class of felonies includes violent crimes such as carjacking, battery or kidnapping.
Utah’s Castle Doctrine
The castle doctrine is a common law doctrine stating that persons have no duty to retreat in their home, or “castle”, and may use reasonable force, including deadly force, to defend their property, person, or another. Outside of the abode, however, a person has a duty to retreat, if possible, before using deadly force. Under this doctrine, one may use force to prevent unlawful entries into a residence. Deadly force can be used if the other party acts in a violent manner. In such a case, there is a presumption that the defendant (homeowner) acted reasonably in using force to defend his or her home. At common law, self-defense claims are not valid if the defendant could have safely retreated from danger (duty to retreat). The castle doctrine is an exception to this. It gives immunity from liability to individuals who acted in self-defense in the home even if they could have safely retreated from the threat and failed to do so. The duty to retreat is a legal requirement in some jurisdictions that a threatened person cannot stand one’s ground and apply lethal force in self-defense, but must retreat to a place of safety instead. Deadly force or lethal force is force with the intent of serious bodily injury or death to another person. In most jurisdictions it is only accepted under conditions of extreme necessity and last resort.
Self-Defense Laws in Utah
• A person is justified in threatening or using force against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that force or a threat of force is necessary to defend the person or a third person against another person’s imminent use of unlawful force.
• A person is justified in using force intended or likely to cause death or serious bodily injury only if the person reasonably believes that force is necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury to the person or a third person as a result of another person’s imminent use of unlawful force, or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
• A person is not justified in using force under the circumstances specified in Subsection if the person: initially provokes the use of force against the person with the intent to use force as an excuse to inflict bodily harm upon the assailant; is attempting to commit, committing, or fleeing after the commission or attempted commission of a felony; or was the aggressor or was engaged in a combat by agreement, unless the person withdraws from the encounter and effectively communicates to the other person his intent to do so and, notwithstanding, the other person continues or threatens to continue the use of unlawful force.
• For purposes of Subsection (2)(a)(iii) the following do not, by themselves, constitute “combat by agreement”: voluntarily entering into or remaining in an ongoing relationship; or entering or remaining in a place where one has a legal right to be.
• A person does not have a duty to retreat from the force or threatened force described in Subsection in a place where that person has lawfully entered or remained (expect if you fall into the exception).
• For purposes of this section, a forcible felony includes aggravated assault, mayhem, aggravated murder, murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, and aggravated kidnapping, rape, forcible sodomy, rape of a child, object rape, object rape of a child, sexual abuse of a child, aggravated sexual abuse of a child, and aggravated sexual assault as defined in Title 76, Chapter 5, Offenses Against the Person, and arson, robbery, and burglary as defined in Title 76, Chapter 6, Offenses Against Property.
• Any other felony offense which involves the use of force or violence against a person so as to create a substantial danger of death or serious bodily injury also constitutes a forcible felony.
• Burglary of a vehicle, defined in Section 76-6-204 , does not constitute a forcible felony except when the vehicle is occupied at the time unlawful entry is made or attempted.
• In determining imminence or reasonableness under Subsection (1), the trier of fact may consider, but is not limited to, any of the following factors:
(a) the nature of the danger;
(b) the immediacy of the danger;
(c) the probability that the unlawful force would result in death or serious bodily injury;
(d) the other’s prior violent acts or violent propensities; and
(e) any patterns of abuse or violence in the parties’ relationship.
Can you use Self-Defense in Utah?
Many high-profile self-defense cases have graced the headlines over the past few years. Self-defense laws have become been a central issue in the national discussion about gun rights. The states are split when it comes to how self-defense is regulated. Some states limit use of the doctrine, while others give citizens the full right to protect themselves. If you have considered using self-defense in an emergency situation, make sure you are familiar with the laws of your state. Utahans should fully understand their state’s take on this issue in the case that they have to act in their own defense.
Self Defense Attorney Free Consultation
When you need legal help with self defense in Utah, please call Ascent Law LLC for your free consultation (801) 676-5506. We want to help you.
8833 S. Redwood Road, Suite C
West Jordan, Utah
84088 United States
Telephone: (801) 676-5506