When Does Self-Defense Justify a Violent Crime in Pennsylvania?
You always have the right to defend yourself from harm. However, self-defense laws in Pennsylvania can be vague and don’t apply to every case. If you injure or kill someone out of self-defense, it will likely be up to a jury to decide whether it was justified or if you are guilty of a violent crime.
The Pittsburgh violent crimes defense attorneys at Worgul, Sarna, & Ness, LLC will ensure your case is presented fairly, and your side of the story is heard. You deserve to protect yourself. Let us help protect you, too.
U.S. Self-Defense Laws
Under U.S. law, self-defense is generally considered the right to use reasonable force or violence to prevent yourself or someone else from being harmed.
However, every state has specific laws on self-defense. There are three common approaches to self-defense laws: “stand your ground,” the castle doctrine, and “duty to retreat.”
If you’re familiar with the fight-or-flight response, it might help to view these approaches in that context. Stand your ground laws emphasize “fight,” whereas duty to retreat laws emphasize “flight.” The castle doctrine is somewhere in between. Here is more information about these types of self-defense laws and their distinctions:
“Stand Your Ground”
Some states employ a “stand your ground” or “shoot first” approach to self-defense laws. This is the most lenient approach to self-defense.
Stand your ground allows you to use sufficient force against someone you believe intends to cause you harm. You can do so without trying to retreat first, and this is true regardless of whether you are threatened in your home or in public. Under the stand your ground approach to self-defense, you also have the right to use deadly force if you believe you are in danger of being attacked.
States that employ the castle doctrine in their self-defense laws require you to initially attempt to retreat if you are involved in a threatening situation outside of your home. If you are in your home, you have the right to use deadly force without retreating, similar to the “stand your ground” method. However, if you are outside of your home, you should first attempt to flee or de-escalate the situation.
If you cannot safely retreat, or the altercation continues despite an attempt to flee, you are then allowed to defend yourself through sufficient force under the castle doctrine approach.
Duty to Retreat
A few states require you to attempt to retreat regardless of the circumstances. Under the “duty to retreat” approach to self-defense, using force to counteract an attack is considered a last resort. Only when you cannot escape and your life is in imminent danger is the use of force justified. These laws are the strictest on self-defense.
Pennsylvania Self-Defense Laws
In Pennsylvania, you have the right to defend yourself against violent intruders entering your home. If you are confronted by an attacker who is visibly wielding a deadly weapon when you are outside of your home, you also don’t have a duty to retreat. You can immediately respond with lethal force, but only if you are in imminent danger of being killed, sexually assaulted, or seriously injured.
Pennsylvania Code Title 18 § 505 establishes the laws for self-defense, incorporating the stand-your-ground and castle doctrine approaches.
According to this law, “the use of force upon or toward another person is justifiable when the actor believes that such force is immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting himself against the use of unlawful force by such other person on the present occasion.”
This definition might seem dense with legal jargon. It helps to break it down further and highlight the most important, required elements.
Requirements for Self-Defense in PA
There are several requirements for the use of force to be justified in Pennsylvania. A self-defense case must include all of the following to be justifiable:
- You believe it is “immediately necessary” – You must reasonably believe the other person intends to cause you serious harm and that your use of force is necessary to protect yourself.
- You use reasonable force – The force you use must be proportionate to the level of force your attacker uses. For example, you cannot just shoot someone because they pushed you.
- You are defending against “unlawful force” – Self-defense should only be used to counteract unlawful force. For example, you cannot claim self-defense for resisting an arrest (even if the arrest is unlawful) or for otherwise retaliating against lawful force.
When Self-Defense is Not Justified
Pennsylvania’s self-defense laws also list occasions when self-defense is not a valid reason to use force. These exceptions to self-defense include:
- You use force when it is not in response to a present occurrence (i.e., to seek revenge)
- You were trespassing on the other person’s property
- You killed someone to defend against a lesser use of force or threat
- You use deadly force against police or other law enforcement officers
Additionally, the Commonwealth’s “stand your ground” law differs from some other states because a deadly weapon that could be used against you must be visibly displayed before you can use lethal force.
Despite these limitations, self-defense laws in Pennsylvania are rather lenient. There are even cases where acting under these circumstances could be justified. It is essential to find a knowledgeable lawyer to help you evaluate your case through the lens of the law and determine the best ways to justify your actions.
Pennsylvania Self-Defense FAQs
Can you kill someone out of self-defense?
The use of deadly force is allowed in Pennsylvania as self-defense if you reasonably believe the other person will cause you serious bodily harm or death. It is also justifiable to defend against kidnapping or sexual intercourse compelled by force or threat. If someone is forcefully entering your home, residence, or dwelling unlawfully (not including vehicles), you can also employ lethal force as a means of self-defense.
However, lethal force in self-defense is not allowed if:
- You provoked the encounter
- You know it isn’t necessary to use deadly force to effectively protect yourself
Does it still count as “self” defense if I was protecting someone else?
There are different laws in Pennsylvania that cover defending another person from imminent harm (§ 506). These laws are essentially the same as if you are defending yourself from harm in Pennsylvania. You must believe someone is facing imminent threat of harm in order to defend them using force.
Can I use force to defend my property in Pennsylvania?
In some cases, you can use force to protect your property from someone who is unlawfully on it (§ 507). For example, say someone unlawfully enters your property and you use force with the belief that they have no right to be there. This is likely a form of self-defense, as long as it meets the other requirements for self-defense in Pennsylvania.
Will I go to jail if it was self-defense?
In most cases, no, you will not be convicted and sentenced to jail if you acted out of self-defense. However, this depends on whether the jury believes your side of the story. You should have an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side to evaluate your case and determine the best route to take to secure a desirable outcome.
Your lawyer can collect evidence such as video footage, witness statements, and police reports to help paint a fuller picture of the incident and demonstrate why you acted reasonably.
If self-defense is not a valid argument against your violent crime charges, all hope is not lost. There could be more suitable options for your defense, such as an alibi, lack of criminal intent, a lack of sufficient evidence, and more.
How could a prosecutor try to argue against self-defense?
Prosecutors have the burden of proof, meaning it is their duty to prove your charges beyond reasonable doubt. If a jury has any doubt that you did not act out of self-defense, they must return a verdict of not guilty. However, prosecutors might rely on a variety of tactics to convince jurors.
For example, prosecutors might claim any of the following:
- You were the initial aggressor or provoked the altercation
- Your use of force was unreasonably excessive
- The other party had only used lawful force against you
- You had intent to commit a violent crime rather than defend yourself
Your defense attorney can help attack their arguments and establish doubt in their case.
Accused of a Crime For Defending Yourself? Call Our Pittsburgh Defense Attorneys Today.
If you believe you harmed someone out of necessity, self-defense could be a valid argument against your violent crime charges. However, you will need an experienced criminal defense attorney to ensure your case is solid. The dedicated Pittsburgh criminal defense lawyers at Worgul, Sarna & Ness, LLC can help show the justification of your actions and uphold your right to self-defense.
Contact our Pennsylvania defense lawyers at (412) 281-2146 to schedule a free initial consultation about your self-defense case.