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What Do NJ Courts Consider Self-Defense?

May 18, 2022 | Posted In Criminal Law |

If you have been charged with assault or another violent crime in New Jersey, you may be able to claim self-defense. Self-defense is a complete defense to a crime—meaning that you can avoid a conviction entirely if you are able to successfully present this defense. So, what do the New Jersey courts consider self-defense? Find out from an experienced New Jersey defense attorney.

New Jersey’s Law on Self-Defense in Criminal Cases

In New Jersey, self-defense is defined by statute. Section 2C:3-4.a of the New Jersey Revised Statutes states:

“Subject to the provisions of this section and of section 2C:3-9, the 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.”

Looking at Section 2C:3-4.a, we can see that there are several necessary elements to a claim of self-defense. To establish self-defense in New Jersey, you must be able to demonstrate that:

  • You believed you needed to use force to protect yourself against the use of unlawful force;
  • You believed the need to use force was immediate; and,
  • Your belief was “reasonable” and related to the present occasion (i.e., you were not trying to prevent an attack in the future).

Self-defense is what is referred to as an “affirmative defense” in New Jersey. Generally speaking, defendants do not have to prove their innocence to avoid a conviction. All they have to do is convince the judge or jury that the prosecution cannot meet its burden of proving their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But, with an affirmative defense, the burden of proof shifts to the defendant. Effectively, when claiming self-defense, you are saying, “Yes, I committed an assault, but I am not guilty because my use of force was justified under the circumstances.”  

This makes self-defense different from most other types of criminal defenses. To convince the judge or jury that you are not guilty, you must prove that New Jersey’s self-defense law applies. This requires a careful and strategic approach, and it requires the advice and representation of an experienced New Jersey defense attorney.

Limitations on the Use of Force in Self-Defense

If you read Section 2C:3-4.a carefully, you will notice that it starts with, “Subject to the provisions of this section and of section 2C:3-9 . . . .” This means that there are exceptions to the general rule allowing for the reasonable use of force in self-defense. So, what are these exceptions?

Section 2C:3-4.b. states that the use of force is not justifiable if:

  • Force is used to resist an arrest (even an unlawful arrest) unless the police officer uses unlawful force;
  • Force is used to combat force used by the occupier or possessor of property (subject to certain caveats);
  • Deadly force is used when the actor provoked the encounter with the purpose of causing death or serious bodily harm;
  • Deadly force is used when the actor can avoid the need to use such force with complete safety by retreating or surrendering possession of personal property to a person asserting a claim or right; or,
  • Deadly force is used for any reason other than to protect against death or serious bodily harm.

There are other exceptions in Section 2C:3-4.b as well, but these are some of the ones that we see most often. Due to the complexities of Section 2C:3-4.b, if you have questions about whether you can claim self-defense, you should speak with an experienced New Jersey defense attorney before making any decisions about how to approach your case.

Section 2C:3-9 applies specifically to cases involving the use of force during an arrest. Under Section 2C:3-9, the use of force is not justified if, “(1) The actor's belief in the unlawfulness of the force . . . against which he employs protective force or his belief in the lawfulness of an arrest which he endeavors to effect by force is erroneous; and, (2) His error is due to ignorance or mistake as to the [law].”

Convincing the Court that You Acted in Self-Defense

Since self-defense is an “affirmative defense,” it is up to you to prove that Section 2C:3-4.a protects you. So, how do you convince the court that you acted in self-defense?

Proving that you acted in self-defense requires evidence. The judge or the members of the jury will not simply take you at your word. Generally speaking, the more evidence you have the better, but the quality of your evidence is critically important as well.

Let’s say you got arrested for assault after a bar fight. You were with a group of friends, and they are all willing to testify that you acted in self-defense. While your friends’ testimony might be helpful, it would be far more helpful if one of your friends (or someone else) captured the incident on video. If there is video evidence that proves you were not the aggressor, this could be extremely strong evidence in support of your claim of self-defense, whereas jurors might be less likely to believe a group of your friends—especially if they may have been drunk when the incident happened.

Other forms of evidence can be used to prove self-defense as well. For example, certain types of injuries are known to be consistent with self-defense. The circumstances surrounding an incident can also indicate self-defense. In cases involving domestic violence, a history of abuse or calls to the police can be helpful for building an argument that the defendant is a victim who had no choice but to try to protect himself or herself from harm.

Speak with an Experienced New Jersey Defense Attorney in Confidence

Criminal cases involving self-defense are extremely complicated, and defending yourself successfully in court requires experienced legal representation. If you are facing charges for assault, murder or any other violent crime and believe you may be able to assert self-defense, we encourage you to call 877-435-6371 or contact us online to speak with a New Jersey defense attorney at Helmer, Conley & Kasselman, P.A. in confidence.

 

Over 20 attorneys at HCK have extensive experience in defending criminal cases as they were former assistant prosecutors and/or police officers for a combined total of over 600 years of law enforcement experience. You can find out more about them on our site, and you can call Managing Partner Ron Helmer on his cell phone at 609 685-0665.

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