Examining Indiana Self-defense Laws
You awake to the sound of breaking glass and spring to a sitting position in your bed. After swinging your legs over the edge of the mattress, your feet search aimlessly for your slippers. Finding them, you open your bedside gun safe and pull out your pistol. You note the cold draft as you exit your bedroom and head downstairs.
Suddenly, a shadow rushes up the stairs toward you. The glint of a blade in the moonlight forces you to raise your firearm and pull the trigger. Will Indiana self-defense laws protect you if you kill the intruder during the unlawful entry?
INDIANA SELF-DEFENSE LAW BY THE BOOK
The Indiana Code provides the basic structure for self-defense law in our state, and the published case law gives it shape. The statutes currently on the books distinguish between self-defense scenarios that allow the use of reasonable force and those that permit deadly force. Let’s examine reasonable force before delving into deadly force.
According to the relevant subsection (c) of Indiana Code 35-41-3-2, a defendant is “justified in using reasonable force against any other person to protect the person or a third person from what the person reasonably believes to be the imminent use of unlawful force.”
This portion of subsection (c) applies to individuals who do not find themselves at risk of serious bodily injury. It applies to situations like an old lady hitting you with her purse or the town drunk pushing you around. What type of force can a person use under such circumstances?
What Is Reasonable Force?
In general, reasonable force must match the force used against you. If you counter an old lady’s swinging purse with a similar shopping bag attack, the police and the district attorney’s office will likely see it as reasonable force. If you knock the old lady out with an uppercut, they may ask why you did not remove yourself instead.
Likewise, if you respond to a few pushes from the town drunk by restraining him with a bear hug, neither the police nor the district attorney would bat an eyelash. However, if you turn and slam his head into the concrete, you could place yourself in legal jeopardy.
If your case goes to court, the judge or jury will decide whether the force you used was reasonable, based on the reasonable person standard. The question they will ask themselves is, “Would a reasonable person in your situation use a similar amount of force?”
Belief, Imminence, Unlawfulness
To successfully claim self-defense as a justification for your use of reasonable force, you must reasonably believe that the force used against you was imminent and unlawful.
The judge or jury will decide whether you actually believed your attacker’s force was imminent and unlawful. Then, using the reasonable person standard, they will assess whether that belief was reasonable under the specific circumstances of your case.
If, for example, someone slaps you in the face, turns their back, and walks away, no further attack is imminent. Suppose you decide to chase the person down and slap them back. In this case, you could not claim self-defense.
As another example, suppose you join a local theater group and take on your first role. During your first ever fight scene, your co-star pushes you in the chest as scripted. Out of pure instinct, you hit your co-star with a right cross. You cannot claim self-defense because the force used against you was lawful.
Regarding deadly force, subsection (c) goes on to explain that an individual “is justified in using deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if the person reasonably believes that that force is necessary to prevent serious bodily injury to the person.” (See a discussion of each new concept mentioned in that excerpt below.)
Justification vs. Excuse
Criminal defense lawyers and judges distinguish between justifications and excuses. Justifications represent exceptions to the prohibition of certain actions and apply to everyone. The courts see justified actions as inherently good. Excuses allow criminal defendants off the hook despite their inherently bad actions.
Indiana law treats justifications as strong, affirmative defenses. Excuses negate the culpability of an otherwise guilty defendant.
Stand Your Ground
Indiana self-defense laws allow a person to protect themselves by standing their ground instead of retreating when they reasonably believe they must use deadly force to prevent serious bodily injury. Unlike citizens of other states, you do not need to attempt an escape before defending yourself against physical harm.
The necessity to use deadly force plays a central role in Indiana’s self-defense case law. If a reasonable person would believe that less-than-lethal force would prevent serious bodily harm, the victim should attempt to use it first.
Additionally, the necessity to use deadly force may arise and then dissipate. In many cases, there is a moment or brief period when the use of deadly force becomes necessary and justified. Applying deadly force before or after this period of necessity may sink a self-defense claim.
As the Indiana Supreme Court stated, the right to use deadly force while defending oneself “arises only when the necessity begins, and equally ends with the necessity; and never must the necessity be greater than when the force employed defensively is deadly.” Whipple v. State, 523 N.E.2d 1363 (Ind. 1988).
Serious Bodily Injury
The threat that you perceive must have the capability to cause serious bodily injury. If someone starts stabbing you at random with a thumbtack, you can use reasonable force to stop the person, but you can’t use deadly force.
If, later on in the attack, the person sits on your chest and attempts to stab you in the eye with the thumbtack, then you might have a proper self-defense claim if you decide to use deadly force.
In 2000, the Indiana Supreme Court condensed statutory and case law regarding self-defense by outlining three elements to the justification.
The defense must show that the defendant “(1) was in a place where the defendant had a right to be; (2) did not provoke, instigate, or participate willingly in the violence; and (3) had a reasonable fear of death or great bodily harm” Brown v. State, 738 N.E.2d 271 (Ind. 2000).
Keep in mind that the facts weigh heavily in any self-defense case. While the self-defense statutes set up a general framework for the justification and the case law offers insightful examples of legal outcomes, no two cases are alike. One detail established as fact can alter a defendant’s life forever.
- Voluntary manslaughter
- Domestic battery