Stand Your Ground Law: California

Considering its reputation, it might come as a shock to some readers that California is in fact a stand-your-ground state. It’s true. Though generally a gun-hating place that has a dim view of citizens’ rights, especially concerning self-defense, California’s laws regarding self defense are clearly codified.

It is worth pointing out that the state’s stand-your-ground provision has been established through jury instructions, not by way of a statute, and that can understandably spell trouble for a beleaguered civilian defender who gets put in a bad position.

flag of California

Although this is a pleasant surprise, don’t rejoice just yet, as a thorough understanding of California’s laws concerning self-defense and especially the typical view of standing your ground in the face of unlawful force is imperative for anyone living in or visiting the state.

Make sure you check out the included state statutes and jury instructions furnished at the end of the article.

What You Need to Know

  • California law does allow citizens to use force, including lethal force, and self-defense so long as it is reasonable and proportional to the threat they are facing.
  • Through case law, California has established jury instructions that inform jurors a defender has no obligation to retreat so long as all facets of justified self-defense are met.
  • Self-defense may never be claimed under any circumstances if the defender was the initial aggressor or otherwise entered into combat by agreement.

General Provisions

On its surface, California’s statutes governing the use of force in self-defense are relatively clear, if lengthy, and seem to fall very much in line with similar statutes and other, gun-friendlier states.

However, interpretation is now as always everything, and things are not nearly as friendly as they might seem upon first reading. But hold off on that for a moment while we dig into the laws proper.

First and foremost, California allows citizens to use a reasonable, appropriate level of force to meet the unlawful use of force against themselves or a third party. Someone who is threatening a defender with the imminent infliction of death, grievous bodily harm or certain forcible felonies like sexual assault or rape may be challenged with lethal force in defense. However, unlawful force that is non-lethal or unlikely to produce any serious bodily harm may not be met with lethal force.

California law also has a dim view of the use of force in self-defense that is considered excessive, as determined by judge or jury, to deal with the threat at hand.

This is very troubling because a jury might determine that the first four rounds you fired in self-defense were entirely justified, but gosh, it was that fifth round that was excessive. Suddenly you are facing manslaughter or murder charges…

Most importantly, even though California case law has established a precedent that a citizen may meet unlawful force with the appropriate level of force wherever they happen to legally, lawfully be, so long as they are not committing any other crime, but what stand-your-ground provision exists is only upheld by jury instructions.

Meaning that a jury will be told that you as the defender are within your rights to stand your ground and “meet force with force” so long as they determine that you are acting within the bounds of justified self defense.

You don’t need me to tell you that the vast majority of juries that could possibly be assembled in the state of California are likely to have an ideologically poor view of self-defense, especially lethal force that is used in the course of said defense.

Restrictions

A person may not be the initial antagonist or aggressor in an encounter and claim self-defense except in rare instances where they make a good faith effort to withdraw prior to the fellow participant in the encounter continuing to enjoin it.

Likewise, a person may not claim self-defense in any case where they provoke another person to attack and as always self-defense is never a viable claim in any situation where two or more parties enter into mutual combat.

Assessment

Many people know that California is an anti-gun state with a dim view of citizens defending themselves from violent crime. However, it is an especially sad state of affairs when one considers that California’s laws as written decidedly affirm that right to self defense, and case law along with accompanying jury instructions even affirm a right for a citizen to stand their ground so long as they are the victim and not the victimizer.

Sadly, a culture of benevolence towards criminals means that average good guy and good gal citizen defenders are unlikely to be treated accordingly in court.

Relevant California Use of Force Statutes

Following jury instructions taken from Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions,

CALCRIM 2020, 1, Series 100–1800

(…)

B. JUSTIFICATIONS AND EXCUSES

505. Justifiable Homicide: Self-Defense or Defense of Another

The defendant is not guilty of (murder/ [or] manslaughter/ attempted murder/ [or] attempted voluntary manslaughter) if (he/she) was justified in (killing/attempting to kill) someone in (self-defense/ [or] defense of another). The defendant acted in lawful (self-defense/ [or] defense of another) if

:

1. The defendant reasonably believed that (he/she/ [or] someone else/ [or] <insert name or description of third party>) was in imminent danger of being killed or suffering great bodily

injury [or was in imminent danger of being (raped/maimed/robbed/ <insert other forcible and

atrocious crime>)];

2. The defendant reasonably believed that the immediate use of deadly force was necessary to defend against that danger;

AND

3. The defendant used no more force than was reasonably necessary to defend against that danger. Belief in future harm is not sufficient, no matter how great or how likely the harm is believed to be. The defendant must have believed there was imminent danger of death or great bodily injury to (himself/herself/ [or] someone else). Defendant’s belief must have been reasonable and (he/she) must have acted only because of that belief. The defendant is only

entitled to use that amount of force that a reasonable person would believe is necessary in the same situation. If the defendant used more force than was reasonable, the [attempted] killing was not justified.

When deciding whether the defendant’s beliefs were reasonable, consider all the circumstances as they were known to and appeared to the defendant and consider what a reasonable person in a similar situation with similar knowledge would have believed. If the defendant’s beliefs

were reasonable, the danger does not need to have actually existed. [The defendant’s belief that (he/she/ [or] someone else) was threatened may be reasonable even if (he/she) relied on information that was not true. However, the defendant must actually and reasonably have believed that the information was true.] [If you find that <insert name of decedent/victim> threatened or harmed the defendant [or others] in the past, you may consider that

information in deciding whether the defendant’s conduct and beliefs were reasonable.]

[If you find that the defendant knew that <insert name of decedent/victim> had threatened or harmed others in the past, you may consider that information in deciding whether the defendant’s conduct and beliefs were reasonable.] [Someone who has been threatened or harmed by a person in the past, is justified in acting more quickly or taking greater self-defense measures against that person.] [If you find that the defendant received a threat from someone else that (he/she) reasonably associated with <insert name of decedent/victim>, you may consider that threat in deciding whether the defendant was justified in acting in (self-defense/ [or] defense of another).]

[A defendant is not required to retreat. He or she is entitled to stand his or her ground and defend himself or herself and, if reasonably necessary, to pursue an assailant until the danger of (death/great bodily injury/ <insert forcible and atrocious crime>) has passed. This is so even if safety could have been achieved by retreating.]

[Great bodily injury means significant or substantial physical injury. It is

an injury that is greater than minor or moderate harm.] The People have the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the [attempted] killing was not justified. If the People have not met this burden, you must find the defendant not guilty of (murder/ [or] manslaughter/ attempted murder/ [or] attempted voluntary manslaughter).

506. Justifiable Homicide: Defending Against Harm to Person Within Home or on Property

The defendant is not guilty of (murder/ [or] manslaughter/ attempted murder/ [or] attempted voluntary manslaughter) if (he/she) (killed/attempted to kill) to defend (himself/herself) [or any other person] in the defendant’s home. Such (a/an) [attempted] killing is justified, and therefore not unlawful, if:

1. The defendant reasonably believed that (he/she) was defending a home against <insert name of decedent>, who (intended to or tried to commit ___________ <insert forcible and

atrocious crime>/ [or] violently[[,] [or] riotously[,]/ [or] tumultuously] tried to enter that home intending to commit an act of violence against someone inside);

2. The defendant reasonably believed that the danger was imminent;

3. The defendant reasonably believed that the use of deadly force was necessary to defend against the danger;

AND

4. The defendant used no more force than was reasonably necessary to defend against the danger. Belief in future harm is not sufficient, no matter how great or how likely the harm is believed to be. The defendant must have believed there was imminent danger of violence to (himself/herself/ [or] someone else). Defendant’s belief must have been reasonable and (he/she) must have acted only because of that belief. The defendant is only entitled to use

that amount of force that a reasonable person would believe is necessary in the same situation. If the defendant used more force than was reasonable, then the [attempted] killing was not justified.

When deciding whether the defendant’s beliefs were reasonable, consider all the circumstances as they were known to and appeared to the defendant and consider what a reasonable person in a similar situation with similar knowledge would have believed. If the defendant’s beliefs

were reasonable, the danger does not need to have actually existed.

[A defendant is not required to retreat. He or she is entitled to stand his or her ground and defend himself or herself and, if reasonably necessary, to pursue an assailant until the danger of (death/bodily injury/ <insert forcible and atrocious crime>) has passed. This is so even if safety could have been achieved by retreating.]

The People have the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the [attempted] killing was not justified. If the People have not met this burden, you must find the defendant not guilty of [attempted] (murder/ [or] manslaughter).

Statutes taken from California Penal Code Part 1, Chapter 8, Title 1- HOMICIDE

187.

(a) Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought.

(b) This section shall not apply to any person who commits an act that results in the death of a fetus if any of the following apply:

(1) The act complied with the Therapeutic Abortion Act, Article 2 (commencing with Section 123400) of Chapter 2 of Part 2 of Division 106 of the Health and Safety Code.

(2) The act was committed by a holder of a physician’s and surgeon’s certificate, as defined in the Business and Professions Code, in a case where, to a medical certainty, the result of childbirth would be death of the mother of the fetus or where her death from childbirth, although not medically certain, would be substantially certain or more likely than not.

(3) The act was solicited, aided, abetted, or consented to by the mother of the fetus.

(c) Subdivision (b) shall not be construed to prohibit the prosecution of any person under any other provision of law.

188.

(a) For purposes of Section 187, malice may be express or implied.

(1) Malice is express when there is manifested a deliberate intention to unlawfully take away the life of a fellow creature.

(2) Malice is implied when no considerable provocation appears, or when the circumstances attending the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart.

(3) Except as stated in subdivision (e) of Section 189, in order to be convicted of murder, a principal in a crime shall act with malice aforethought. Malice shall not be imputed to a person based solely on his or her participation in a crime.

(b) If it is shown that the killing resulted from an intentional act with express or implied malice, as defined in subdivision (a), no other mental state need be shown to establish the mental state of malice aforethought. Neither an awareness of the obligation to act within the general body of laws regulating society nor acting despite that awareness is included within the definition of malice.

189.

(a) All murder that is perpetrated by means of a destructive device or explosive, a weapon of mass destruction, knowing use of ammunition designed primarily to penetrate metal or armor, poison, lying in wait, torture, or by any other kind of willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing, or that is committed in the perpetration of, or attempt to perpetrate, arson, rape, carjacking, robbery, burglary, mayhem, kidnapping, train wrecking, or any act punishable under Section 206, 286, 287, 288, or 289, or former Section 288a, or murder that is perpetrated by means of discharging a firearm from a motor vehicle, intentionally at another person outside of the vehicle with the intent to inflict death, is murder of the first degree.

(b) All other kinds of murders are of the second degree.

(c) As used in this section, the following definitions apply:

(1) “Destructive device” has the same meaning as in Section 16460.

(2) “Explosive” has the same meaning as in Section 12000 of the Health and Safety Code.

(3) “Weapon of mass destruction” means any item defined in Section 11417.

(d) To prove the killing was “deliberate and premeditated,” it is not necessary to prove the defendant maturely and meaningfully reflected upon the gravity of the defendant’s act.

(e) A participant in the perpetration or attempted perpetration of a felony listed in subdivision (a) in which a death occurs is liable for murder only if one of the following is proven:

(1) The person was the actual killer.

(2) The person was not the actual killer, but, with the intent to kill, aided, abetted, counseled, commanded, induced, solicited, requested, or assisted the actual killer in the commission of murder in the first degree.

(3) The person was a major participant in the underlying felony and acted with reckless indifference to human life, as described in subdivision (d) of Section 190.2.

(f) Subdivision (e) does not apply to a defendant when the victim is a peace officer who was killed while in the course of the peace officer’s duties, where the defendant knew or reasonably should have known that the victim was a peace officer engaged in the performance of the peace officer’s duties.

198.5.

Any person using force intended or likely to cause death or great bodily injury within his or her residence shall be presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily injury to self, family, or a member of the household when that force is used against another person, not a member of the family or household, who unlawfully and forcibly enters or has unlawfully and forcibly entered the residence and the person using the force knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry occurred.

As used in this section, great bodily injury means a significant or substantial physical injury.

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