It is not difficult to imagine being caught up in a violent confrontation that you did not seek and did not start. When somebody is the victim of another person’s aggression, what rights do they have to take action to protect themselves? What about protecting somebody else? Can a person be charged with a crime even if they acted in self-defense?
The reality is that if you use physical violence on another person it is highly likely that you will be charged with a crime. Even if it was lawful for you to use force in self-defense, it may be necessary to assert that defense in court after you have been charged. Let’s take a look at why this is true and how self-defense works in North Carolina.
Fights and Criminal Charges in North Carolina
There are a number of North Carolina criminal charges that can apply when people get into a fight. Sometimes the participants will be charged with some form of assault. There are many different assault crimes, ranging from minor misdemeanors up to significant felonies, and the potential penalties vary but can be significant. Exactly what type of assault charge would apply depends on whether anybody was injured, whether a weapon was involved, and what sorts of people were involved.
Another common offense is Affray, which is charged when two or more people engage in fighting. This is a more minor misdemeanor and usually comes from a situation where it appears that everybody is equally responsible for causing the fight. In general, the punishments for misdemeanor fight-related offenses tend to range from the imposition of fines and court costs to probation and, in rare cases, 60 or more days in jail.
Rules about Self-Defense
Self-defense can never be claimed by the aggressor in a fight. If you start a fight, you cannot later claim that you were defending yourself. But if you are involved in a fight and withdraw from it (meaning that you quit fighting and try to leave) and somebody later comes after you, then you might be able to claim that you had to defend yourself at that point.
A person may use a reasonable degree of force to defend themselves. If you use excessive force in self-defense, the law may deem that you have gone too far. There is no clear-cut rule as to what constitutes too much force, but in general, a person is expected to use the minimum level needed to protect themselves from injury and no more.
Self-Defense and the Courts
This explains why it is fairly common for somebody who was defending themselves to still be charged with a crime. It may not be apparent at the time whether reasonable force was used. When the police question the various witnesses to the fight, different opinions may be voiced as to who was the aggressor. In those scenarios, it is likely that the police will go ahead and charge everybody and let the courts sort the situation out.
When a person claims that they acted in self-defense, the prosecutor must prove that they did not do so in order to obtain a conviction. So to be convicted in a self-defense case there must be evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was the aggressor, that they used excessive force, or for some other reason, they are not entitled to claim self-defense.
So what are you supposed to do if you use self-defense and are nevertheless charged with a crime? While every situation is different, one of your first actions should be to talk to a local criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Only a lawyer can advise you about your legal options and give you advice about what you should or should not do.