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Self-Defense in West Virginia Criminal Cases

Self-defense often arises in criminal cases where one party is physically attacked by another.  If you are not the aggressor and physically attacked, you have a basic right to self-defense in West Virginia.  However, self-defense is not without limitations.  This blog provides a general overview of the right to self-defense in West Virginia criminal cases.  It is not intended as legal advice and is not a substitute for legal advice from a West Virginia criminal defense lawyer.

The Right to Self-Defense

If a person charged with a crime was not the aggressor and had reasonable grounds to believe that he or she was in imminent danger of harm, and did actually believe he or she was in imminent danger of harm, and could be saved from harm by using force, self-defense may be appropriate.

This means that if an attacked person, who did not start a physical altercation, reasonably believes that physical harm could only be avoided by defending himself or herself, then self-defense is proper.  Importantly, mere words by another are generally not enough to trigger application of self-defense.  There typically must be some overt physical act.

The amount of force utilized must be proportionate to the danger of harm.  This means that you cannot utilize force greater than the harm presented under the totality of the circumstances.  If faced with lethal force, then responding with lethal force may be proper.  If faced with non-lethal force, then responding with non-lethal force may be proper.  A person cannot defend non-lethal force with lethal force.  Hence, generally, you cannot shoot someone for slapping you.

Oftentimes, the questions arises whether a person must run away or retreat before acting in self-defense.  Some commentators have suggested that, as a general rule, a victim has a duty to retreat before using force.  A more exacting rule is that if you are not the aggressor and wholly without fault, you have no duty to retreat before acting in self-defense.  If you are not a wholly innocent party, retreat is mandated before acting in self-defense.

Defense of Another Person

Closely related to self-defense is the defense of “defense of another” person.  The right of self-defense may be exercised on behalf of another person to prevent unlawful attacks by an aggressor.  In order to rely upon this defense, there must be evidence the person “had a reasonable belief of the lawfulness of his or her intervention on behalf of another person who was in imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm from which such person could save himself/herself only by using force, including deadly force, against his or her assailant, but was unable to do so.”  State v. Stines, 2018 W. Va. LEXIS 721, at *13 (W.Va. Sup. Ct., Nov. 16, 2018)(Memorandum Decision).

The Castle Doctrine

The idea that that a person’s home is his or her castle has firms roots in West Virginia law.  The “castle doctrine” provides protections to people who are faced with an intruder in his or her home.

If you are attacked in your home by an intruder, you do not have a duty to retreat.  Even then, if you are in your home and an unlawful intruder threatens imminent physical violence or the commission of a felony, you may use reasonable and proportionate force without retreating.

The State’s Burden of Proof in Self-Defense Cases

Whether a person acted in self-defense is a decision to be made by a jury.

Once there is some evidence to create a reasonable doubt that a person acted in self-defense, it becomes the State’s burden of proving that the defendant did not act in self defense beyond a reasonable doubt.  A reasonable doubt is simply a doubt based upon reason that a reasonable person would not hesitate to rely and act upon.  A person has no duty to prove he or she acted in self-defense once some evidence of self-defense is presented to a jury.

A Self-Defense Lawyer

Self-defense can be a defense in a variety of charges including battery, domestic battery, and murder.  If you have been charged with a crime, it is important to obtain the advice of experienced legal counsel to determine potential defenses.  Self-defense is factually driven and requires application of the specific facts to the relevant law.  Barney Law PLLC is located in Teays Valley, West Virginia.  Mark Barney provides criminal defense in Putnam County, Kanawha County, and surrounding areas.  Feel free to contact us to discuss the potential for representation.