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Self Defense: When is Protecting Yourself a Defense to Criminal Charges in New Jersey?

May 3, 2024 | Posted In Criminal Law

While injuring or killing someone in New Jersey will often lead to criminal charges, there are circumstances in which the use of force is justified. One of these circumstances is when you need to protect yourself from harm. The use of force “in self-protection” is a valid defense under New Jersey law, though asserting this defense effectively generally requires the representation of an experienced New Jersey defense attorney.  

Why? Because avoiding a conviction isn’t as simple as claiming that you acted self defense. There are specific requirements for New Jersey’s “self-protection” law to apply, and prosecutors will be fighting hard to secure a conviction if your case goes to trial. Additionally, while most defense strategies in criminal cases focus on the prosecution’s burden of proof, to successfully assert self defense, you must be able to affirmatively prove that your use of force was justified.

Use of Force in Self-Protection: New Jersey’s Self Defense Law

The defense of self defense appears in Section 2C:3-4 of the New Jersey Revised Statutes, which is titled “Use of Force in Self-Protection.” Under Section 2C:3-4, it is a defense to criminal culpability that you caused the injury or death of another person under circumstances justifying your use of force in order to protect yourself. Specifically, Section 2C:3-4 states:

“[T]he use of force upon or toward another person is justifiable when the actor reasonably 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. . . .

“[However, t]he use of deadly force is not justifiable under this section unless the actor reasonably believes that such force is necessary to protect himself against death or serious bodily harm . . . .”

To claim self defense under Section 2C:3-4, there are several specific facts, or “elements,” you need to prove. For example, a key aspect of self defense is that you must “reasonably believe” that your use of force is “immediately necessary” to protect yourself against someone else’s use of unlawful force “on the present occasion.” If your fear wasn’t reasonable under the circumstances, or if you were not involved in an immediate altercation but instead feared for your safety in the future, then New Jersey’s self defense law may not protect you.

Additionally, Section 2C:3-4 establishes several specific circumstances in which the use of force is not justified—even when it is used for self-protection. We included one of these in the quote from Section 2C:3-4 above. Regarding the use of deadly force specifically, the law states that such use is only justified when the actor reasonably believes that it is necessary to protect against “death or serious bodily harm.” This is known as “proportionality.” For the use of deadly force to be justified, it must be proportional to the risks presented (or the risks perceived).

Other circumstances in which the use of force in self defense is not justified include (but are not limited to):

  • Using force to resist arrest (including an unlawful arrest, “unless the peace officer employs unlawful force to effect such arrest”);
  • Using force to resist force used by a property owner or tenant (though there are exceptions to this rule as well);
  • Using deadly force after provoking the use of force against which the actor is defending against;
  • Using deadly force when it is possible to avoid such use “with complete safety by retreating[,] by surrendering possession . . . or by complying with a demand . . . .” (though New Jersey residents are not required to retreat from their own dwelling unless they provoked the encounter at issue); and,
  • Using force when “[t]he actor's belief in the unlawfulness of the force or conduct against which he employs protective force . . . is erroneous; and . . . [h]is error is due to ignorance or mistake [of law].”

If you are facing charges for assault, homicide or any other crime in New Jersey and are thinking about asserting self defense in court, it will be important for you to discuss Section 2C:3-4 with an experienced New Jersey defense attorney promptly. You need to know whether any exceptions apply, and you also need to be absolutely certain that asserting self defense is the best option you have available. You must assert self defense very carefully. If you aren’t successful in convincing the judge or jury that your use of force was justified, you need to make sure that you don’t inadvertently confess to the crime with which you are being charged.

What About Protecting Your Home or Property?

Along with questions about self defense, many people also have questions about protecting their home or property. In New Jersey, you generally have the right to protect your home (and the property in your home) through the use of proportional force against someone who is trespassing. Other scenarios quickly get much more complicated. Also, keep in mind that if you feared for your property, you may have feared for your own safety as well. So, if you are thinking about asserting “defense of property” in your New Jersey criminal case, this is something that you will want to discuss with an experienced defense attorney as well.

What About Protecting Someone Else?

In addition to justifying the use of force in self defense, the New Jersey Revised Statutes also justify the use of force to protect others in appropriate cases. If you reasonably used proportional force to protect someone else—whether a friend, family member or stranger—you may be entitled to a “Not guilty” verdict under New Jersey law.

Speak with an Experienced New Jersey Defense Attorney in Confidence

Do you have questions about asserting self defense (or defense of property or others) in a New Jersey criminal case? If so, we encourage you to contact us promptly for more information. To speak with an experienced New Jersey defense attorney in confidence as soon as possible, call 877-435-6371 or tell us how we can get in touch online today.

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