Imminent Threat: What Does That Mean?

When it comes to self-defense, nothing is “set in stone”—every case is different, and all law is a matter of interpretation and opinion (not yours or mine, by the way). If your case goes to trial, a jury will decide if what you did constituted legitimate self-defense.

A critical element in any self-defense case is whether or not you were facing a serious threat. Various states define “threat” using different language. The defendant must be “in immediate fear of death or great bodily harm,” or “reasonably in fear of grievous bodily harm or death.”

Note that merely claiming “I was in fear for my life” is not sufficient. You must convince the jury that your fear was “reasonable,” meaning that any “reasonable person” in the exact same circumstances as you would have believed that the attackers had both the ability, and the intent, to do serious harm. Self-defense generally includes the right to use force to defend third parties.

Jurors will hear two opposing arguments in court. Prosecutors will try to convince them that it was not reasonable for the defendant to believe a threat existed. The defense attorney will try to persuade them that the defendant’s fear was indeed reasonable.

Numerous factors will be considered, starting with the age, sex, height, weight, skill, training, and physical condition of the defendant. These will then be contrasted with the age, sex, height, weight, and apparent ability of the assailant(s) to inflict serious bodily harm or death.

For example, a barely five foot tall female grandmother will have a relatively easy time convincing a jury that she was reasonably in fear of serious harm facing an unarmed 17-year-old assailant. A six-foot, 200-pound retired Navy SEAL facing the same “teen” would have a tougher sell.

Numbers also matter—one skinny teenage thug may not be seen as a threat (unless the victim is even less formidable), but several such attackers, even though unarmed, can stomp even a big, strong victim into a coma.

Your assailant need not be armed to present a threat. Take the Ferguson, Missouri case of Michael Brown. While “only” eighteen, and unarmed, Brown was huge—well over six feet tall and weighing close to 300 pounds. Could such a person inflict serious harm without being armed? Clearly he could, and the grand jury agreed.

But the constant drumbeat of media reports referring to attackers as “unarmed” (or worse, unarmed “teen”) has resulted in the dangerously false perception among the public that deadly force can only be used against an armed assailant. And your jury will likely have heard the propaganda.

The apparent intent of your attacker(s) to harm you is also a crucial component. They may have had the ability (whether by size, numbers, or being armed) to hurt you, but what evidence can you provide that they intended to do you harm? Easier said than done.

Finally, remember that once the attack stops (for example, the assailant gives up or retreats), the threat is no longer viewed as “imminent” and your right to use force ceases.

But no matter what the circumstances of your particular case, your jury will probably have to be convinced that it was reasonable to believe that those confronting you had the ability to do you serious harm, as well as the intention to do so. Needless to say, having a good lawyer is absolutely essential to making that case successfully.