Defense of Others

In 2018, approximately 123 people were fatally injured in altercations related to domestic violence. The majority of these incidents involve family members or those in some dating or intimate relationships. In these and other violent situations, a potential victim may have a legal right to use reasonable force to defend themselves. Proving a claim of self-defense in a criminal matter is often challenging and based on the individual circumstances of the situation; therefore, an experienced criminal defense attorney is best-suited for these cases.

According to Pennsylvania laws, acts of domestic violence are those that occur between members of a family, household, partners to a sexual or intimate relationship, or those who are parents to a child. These are acts of violence that are intentionally or recklessly committed and lead to harm or severe injury that may constitute sexual assault, coerced intercourse, and may involve a deadly weapon. A victim of domestic violence may find themselves in a situation where they fear for their safety, such as when being “stalked” by someone. Acts of domestic violence may also potentially involve the physical or sexual abuse of a minor.

Criminal Charges for Domestic Violence in Pennsylvania

Unlike in many other jurisdictions, Pennsylvania does not have a specific criminal charge that applies to domestic violence. Based on the circumstances involved, the charges may include misdemeanors or felonies such as assault, battery, rape, stalking, strangulation, etc.

Claims of Self-Defense in Cases of Domestic Violence

Those who are arrested and charged with a criminal defense involving domestic violence are often facing serious felony-level penalties that include years of imprisonment, substantial fines, and many other collateral consequences. In these situations, it is critical for the accused to promptly confer with a seasoned Pennsylvania domestic violence lawyer that will ensure your rights are protected and formulate a plan of defense.

Self-defense may be a total defense or grounds for reducing the severity of criminal charges. This legal defense requires that the circumstances of the situation were such that the use of force was appropriate or justified. State law allows for the use of force in self-protection when the actor believes they are in danger and must protect themselves. Self-defense is also an affirmative defense to justify using force for the protection of others based on the circumstances.

Self-Defense for the Protection of Others

Pennsylvania law allows for the use of force to protect a third-party when the circumstances can be justified. This justification exists when the actor believes it is necessary to protect the other person against unlawful force and therefore intervenes. Special statutory provisions exist that identify three specific responsible parties who are acting in roles of responsibility or protection as follows:

Parent or Guardian

Justification for force may exist when the actor is a parent, guardian, or other party designated with caring for or supervising a minor and:

  • The force is intended for the protection and safety of the minor
  • May apply to prevent or punish the minor for misconduct
  • The force used is not known to or intended to cause “death, serious bodily injury, disfigurement, extreme pain, mental distress, or gross degradation.”

Teacher or Other Entrusted Individual

Justification for force may exist for a teacher or other individual that has been given the responsibility to care or supervise a minor and:

  • They believe force is needed for special purposes, such as to maintain discipline in the academic setting
  • The use of force is for the minor's well-being
  • When the force used would have been justifiable if a parent or guardian had acted in a way that is not known to or intended to cause “death, serious bodily injury, disfigurement, extreme pain, mental distress, or gross degradation.”

Individual Responsible for Incapacitated or Mentally Impaired

Justification for force may exist for a guardian or other individual with responsibility for someone that is mentally ill or incapacitated and:

  • The use of force is for the mentally ill or incapacitated person's well-being
  • There is no “reasonable alternative” to using force
  • The force used is not known to or intended to cause “death, serious bodily injury, disfigurement, extreme pain, mental distress, or gross degradation.”

Pennsylvania's Recognition of the Castle Doctrine

State legislators have stated that law-abiding individuals may take action to protect themselves and/or their families as necessary when faced with intrusion or attack without being subject to criminal or civil actions. This is consistent with the Castle Doctrine that was long-established under common law. Further, the law asserts that people have a right to be protected from harm within their homes and vehicles. The provisions explain that people should not be forced to surrender to a criminal when their safety and/or the safety of their family is at risk.

Limitations on the Justification for Using Force

Some circumstances may exist where the use of force cannot be justified. Self-defense is inapplicable when an actor is resisting arrest from a member of law enforcement or when intruding on someone that is lawfully protecting their property except when necessary to prevent “death or serious bodily injury.” The use of deadly force may only be used when believed to be necessary to prevent “death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping, or sexual intercourse compelled by force.”

The use of deadly force also cannot be justified when an individual can safely retreat from the encounter, unless they are within their own home, vehicle, business, etc. Generally, the use of deadly force is not justifiable against a peace officer. Deadly force is generally justified when an unarmed individual believes it is necessary against an individual with a firearm.

The Burden of Proof

In criminal cases, the allegations must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is a high standard of proof that must be satisfied for the plaintiff to prevail. When employing a self-defense strategy, your defense attorney may attempt to establish doubt by presenting convincing exculpatory evidence.

Importance of Retaining a Knowledgeable Domestic Violence Defense Attorney

Justification for self-defense in cases of domestic violence can be complex and subject to interpretation. Overburdened criminal court venues sometimes process cases hastily and do not properly consider the civil rights of the accused; therefore, your lawyer must be well-versed in representing clients in these matters.

Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Lawyer

Those arrested and charged with crimes associated with domestic violence often face life-altering ramifications that include a lengthy prison sentence. Joseph D. Lento is a skilled attorney that understands what it takes to effectively defend clients in these cases. Contact the office today at (888) 535-3686.

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Attorney Joseph D. Lento has more than a decade of experience successfully resolving clients' criminal charges in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania counties. If you are having any uncertainties about what the future may hold for you or a loved one, contact the Lento Law Firm today! Criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento will go above and beyond the needs of any client, and will fight until the final bell rings.

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