Excessive force is a common reason for which citizens find themselves in significant legal trouble after a self-defense incident. It proves an easy trap to fall into, and good training and a robust knowledge of self-defense law goes a long way towards mitigating the likelihood of an excessive force charge.
What is excessive force?
Simply put, it is a level of violence that raises above the legal standard of “reasonable force.” Many fail to remember that if an individual is killed in a conflict, even if that individual was a criminal, committing horrible and violent acts, a homicide has occurred. The legal system may deem it “justifiable homicide” if it was legitimate self-defense, but the taking of human life is not, nor should it be, taken lightly. Sometimes a killing is justified if it results from the force necessary to stop the attack. However, self-defenders occasionally go overboard in the level of force brought to bear against a threat, and having a clear understanding of what is reasonable, necessary, and excessive, is very important for the armed citizen or anyone who may need to defend themselves.
What is reasonable?
When it comes to stopping a threat, what is reasonable? The legal doctrine of the “reasonable man” standard basically stipulates that a reasonable person of sound mind would have done the same thing in the same circumstance. If assaulted by a person playing the knockout game, a reasonable individual would likely punch back. If robbed at knife point, a reasonable person would likely shoot the robber if armed. However, if the knockout assailant falls down after a punch, the reasonable individual is not likely to then stomp the assailant on the ground until their brain leaks out of their head. If, after the armed robber is shot, he runs off, the reasonable person is not likely to chase him down and execute him as he begs for his life on his knees. Therefore, the standard of reasonable should be the judge of action.
There are certainly situations that become quite grey and convoluted as it pertains to reasonable force versus excessive force. An example that comes to mind is the frequent aftermath of defensive knife use. Even in legitimate self-defense, plan to be prosecuted if you stab the attacker thirty times. However, knives are not magic, and an attacker might, indeed, still be trying to kill the victim even after receiving dozens of stab wounds. Such an incident is rife for prosecution by a politically ambitious prosecutor, and it should give the self-defender pause. Likewise, a simple punch, in retaliation for an assault, can turn deadly when the attacker hits the pavement and injures his head. Would the punch be deemed reasonable or excessive? Each individual incident may have a unique set of dynamics that will get mulled over by the justice system. However, cultivating a good understanding of this concept will go a long way towards mitigating the possibility of using excessive force in a violent encounter.
What is necessary?
Perhaps the simplest way to think of reasonable versus excessive force is to condition one’s mind to understanding what is necessary. Every situation is different. Use of force falls into two general categories; lethal force, permissible only against lethal threats, and less-lethal force, permissible against “simple” assault. Excessive force is an easy trap to fall in with both. Only the force necessary to stop an assault is justified, and anything further will be deemed excessive, and this principle applies to less-lethal and lethal force alike.
If dealing with a lethal threat, what is necessary? Generally, stopping the criminal from doing what they are doing is what is the only thing truly necessary. Most defensive gun uses every year actually end with no shot being fired, so the display of the weapon in the hands of the intended victim is usually all it takes to get the criminal to stop. However, this is by no means a sure thing. The force necessary will be dictated primarily by the criminal assailant or multiple assailants. The spectrum of possible force runs the gamut of just a display of the weapon up to multiple shots fired, with the criminal sometimes absorbing a staggering amount ballistic persuasion before ceasing to attack.
The truth remains that the best way to avoid using excessive force is first to know the principles of self-defense law but also to train in relevant self-defense skills. People who are skilled and competent in their abilities are less prone to overreact in violent circumstances. Good training gives the individual a command of force response, ranging from less-lethal to lethal, and confidence in the ability to use your tools mitigates the likelihood of an inappropriate response. People with good training also tend to know how to apply only necessary force at the appropriate time. For example, the application of OC Spray to stop a simple assault can sometimes stop a conflict from escalating into a more violent and potentially lethal situation. Force on force training for such violence establishes such decision-making capabilities.
While force is justified to end a threat, the force must be commensurate with the nature of the assault (simple assault or deadly assault). Once the threat is neutralized, there is no further justification for force. The concealed carrier must be fully literate in this legal doctrine.