When It Comes to Self-Defense, Who Has a Heavier Burden?

For Americans, the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse was a vindication of an innocent teenager or a brutal disappointment giving him a pass for his actions. But for legal scholars, it was not a surprise. Once Mr. Rittenhouse claimed that he had acted in self-defense when he shot three men, killing two, during unrest following the police shooting of a Black man in Kenosha, Wis., the onus was on the prosecution to prove otherwise.

The acquittal points to the wide berth the legal system gives to defendants who say they acted out of fear, even if others around them were also afraid.

Wisconsin’s rules for self-defense are well within the national mainstream. If people reasonably believe they are at risk of death or great bodily harm, they can use deadly force. Most states say that someone who provokes violence or is acting illegally waives the right to self-defense, but Wisconsin allows it if the person has “exhausted every other reasonable means to escape from or otherwise avoid death or great bodily harm.”

The state does not have a full-fledged “stand your ground” statute that exists in at least 30 states, but people who believe they are threatened do not have a duty to retreat if they can.

What Is a “Stand Your Ground” Law?

Arizona has clearly defined self-defense laws (also known as “stand your ground” laws) that are meant to protect those in danger while giving them the legal opportunity to defend themselves from harm. When police in Arizona believe someone was acting out of self-defense, they may not charge that person with whatever crime was committed under the circumstances.

Standing one’s ground is the opposite of the duty to retreat. In some states, a defendant need not retreat before using force including deadly force; rather they may stand their ground and defend themselves with the same force applied by their attacker. In such states, the defendant may even stand their ground in a public place.

Such rules can be combustible when juxtaposed against the state’s open-carry law, which allows for situations like the one at issue in the trial, where numerous strangers were armed and had taken it upon themselves to maintain order.

Self-defense laws typically do not require someone to have good judgment and tend to consider only the moments leading up to the violence, not whether the person willingly entered a turbulent situation or contributed to the chaos.

What Is the Burden in a Civil Trial?

In a civil case, the plaintiff makes the original allegations in a complaint and bears the initial burden. The defendant then files a responsive pleading denying some or all of the allegations and the burden shifts to them to prove their defenses or counterclaim. Below is the burden in a civil trial:

The Lowest Standard: Preponderance of the Evidence – The rules of civil procedure used by all U.S. Courts require that a plaintiff prove her case by a preponderance of the evidence. This roughly means a greater than 50% chance, based on all the reasonable evidence, that the defendant did the wrong that caused the damage. The defendant doesn’t have to do anything to defend their case if the plaintiff fails to prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence.

What Is the Burden in a Criminal Trial?

In a criminal trial, the burden of proof is always on the prosecution, as the defendant is presumed innocent. If the prosecution fails to prove guilt, the defendant does not need to prove anything. Below is the burden of proof in a criminal case:

The Highest Standard: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt – A much higher burden than preponderance of evidence. The standard is that there is a great likelihood the accused committed the crime. 

Exceptions: There are a few exceptions when the defendant must prove their defense to the charges. These include the defenses of insanityduress, and self-defense.

What Is Self-Defense?

Self-defense is a broad term used to describe a person’s use of force including deadly force to protect themselves from an active threat or attack. Self-defense can also describe the use of force to protect one’s property from an ongoing robbery or burglary.

Defense of others also falls under self-defense principles if the person using such force is doing so to protect or aid a third party from an active attack.

In order for the defense to become applicable in criminal law, the defendant must be charged with a crime of assault, battery, or murder and then raise self-defense as a justification for their actions. Self-defense can also apply in civil lawsuits when a defendant is being sued for assault, battery, or wrongful death.

What Can Arizona Business Owners Learn?

If you use unreasonable force in defending yourself, or if you weren’t justified in using force at all, the other person may file a civil lawsuit against you and you may be forced to pay them restitution.

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