When Does Self-Defense Become Assault? A Guide To Criminal Defense For Assault In Washington State

In the eyes of the law, people have a legal right to defend themselves if they feel their lives are in danger.

In the legal world, self-defense has been designed to protect people who are attacked by someone else, unprovoked. The victim in this scenario is even allowed to use deadly force in order to protect themselves if the threat they are facing is deadly.

However, the use of force for self-defense can transform into assault if deadly force is used after the aggressor has verbally communicated that they’ve given up or the threat the victim is facing is not deadly [1]. Any aggression that the victim displays at this point can be seen or charged as assault. [2]

What Are The Exceptions To Using Deadly Force In Self-Defense?

Understanding what deadly force is can help frame how self-defense can quickly turn into an assault charge. The definition of deadly force varies from state to state, but in many states, deadly force means if the force used is likely to cause death or serious injury [3].

The law permits the use of deadly force in self-defense when there is a deadly threat. So people are only allowed to use deadly force in self-defense when there is a threat of harm so great that it could cause them death or serious injury. To qualify as self-defense, a reasonable person would deem deadly force necessary in the situation. If a lesser amount of force would protect the victim, then deadly force is not warranted [4]. If a victim uses deadly force when it is not necessary, it can be charged as assault.

In some states, if there is a window to retreat the scene and flee the threat, victims may not use deadly force. In legal terms, this is known as a duty to retreat [5]. If the victim retaliates against their attacker using force when there is an opportunity to get away, this can be seen as assault.

If I Hit Someone First In Washington State, Can I Claim Self Defense?

If someone feels they are about to experience great harm or threat, they do not have to wait to use force to protect themselves [6]. For example, if someone has a baseball bat and says they’re going to hit you, you’d be allowed to hit them first, before they strike, to protect yourself. This would qualify as self-defense.

However, let’s say you encounter someone you’ve had a physical fight with in the past. You’re worried this person will strike you again, but they have not made any verbal threats. You can’t hit them first to protect yourself because there is no real threat of imminent danger.

What Should I Do If I Acted In Self Defense But Have Been Charged With Assault In Washington State?

If you were in an altercation and you believe you were acting in self-defense, but have been charged with assault, contact a criminal defense lawyer at Priest Criminal Defense immediately. Our team of experts have experience defending those that acted in self-defense and can help you present your best defense.

[1] Schwartzbach, Micah. “Limits On Self Defense.” Lawyers.com. https://www.lawyers.com/legal-info/criminal/criminal-law-basics/limits-on-self-defense.html

[2] “Self Defense Law: Overview.” Find Law. https://criminal.findlaw.com/criminal-law-basics/self-defense-overview.html

[3] Schwartzbach, Micah. “Criminal Law Defenses: Self Defense.” Lawyers.com. https://www.lawyers.com/legal-info/criminal/criminal-law-basics/criminal-defenses-self-defense.html

[4] Schwartzbach, Micah. “Criminal Law Defenses: Self Defense.” Lawyers.com. https://www.lawyers.com/legal-info/criminal/criminal-law-basics/criminal-defenses-self-defense.html

[5] Schwartzbach, Micah. “Criminal Law Defenses: Self Defense.” Lawyers.com. https://www.lawyers.com/legal-info/criminal/criminal-law-basics/criminal-defenses-self-defense.html

[6] Bergman, Paul. “Can I claim self defense if I hit someone first?” Nolo. https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/can-i-claim-self-defense-i-hit-someone.html