Legal Defenses in Criminal Law

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In criminal law, offenses are clearly defined. Some require a proof of the criminal act and others require proof of intent to commit the crime. "Under the law; individuals may have performed illegal acts but still not be found guilty of a criminal violation because of a legally recognized justification for the actions or because legally they were not responsible for their actions (Neubauer & Fradella, 2010, p. 48-49). Legal defenses in criminal law come from the way crime is defined. There are numerous defenses that are seen in criminal cases. Self-defense is the most commonly seen legal defense. Others include duress or compulsion, infancy or immaturity, mental impairment or insanity, and necessity. To be held responsible for a crime, a person must understand the nature and consequences of his or her unlawful actions. Under certain circumstances, a person who commits a crime lacks the legal capacity to be held responsible for the act. Defenses based on justifications rely on a claim that the accused party did take certain action now being labeled criminal but had no other choice in order to minimize their own losses or those of someone else. A justification defense deems conduct that is otherwise criminal to be socially acceptable and non-punishable under the specific circumstances of the case. "Justification focuses on the nature of the conduct under the circumstances. Excuse defenses focus on the defendant's moral culpability. "An excuse defense recognizes that the defendant has caused some social harm but should not be blamed or punished for such harm. Justification and excuse defenses apply to all crimes. Some defenses, however, pertain to just one or a few crimes. For example, "legal impossibility" is a common law defense to the crime of attempt.  Justification, excuse, and offense-modification defenses all relate to the defendant's culpability or to the wrongfulness of conduct. There is a difference between justification defense and an excusable defense. Self-defense and necessity are justifiable reasons and duress and insanity are excusable reasons.

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Self-Defense

"The general rule is that a person is privileged to use force as reasonably appears necessary to defend himself or herself against an apparent threat of unlawful and immediate violence from another" (Pollock, 2009, p. 90). The general rule is that a person is privileged to use force when a person reasonably believes that it is necessary to defend oneself or another against the immediate threat of danger or use of unlawful force. However, a person must use no more force than appears reasonably necessary in the circumstances. Force likely to cause death or great bodily harm is justified in self-defense only if a person reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm. In thinking about a self-defense case, attorneys need to consider police use-of-force training and standards. "Attorneys will need to know a moderate amount of technical information about firearms, gunshot wounds, knife wounds, blood splatter evidence and crime scene reconstruction in order to review and challenge the prosecutor's experts" (Steele, 2003, p. 659). Attorneys investigate eyewitness memory and how the client, the deceased and any innocent bystanders were affected by the stress of the incident. If the act was committed in self-defense, then the crime is not punishable. The right to protect oneself, family, and home is recognized by the common law. Model Penal Code shows that use of force is justifiable when it is used to protect and prevent against harm. To prove self-defense, one must show proof that there was a reasonableness of fear of physical harm to oneself or another and reason to perceive an imminent danger. The amount of force used must be reasonable and related to the threat and he or she who is claiming self defense cannot be the cause of the incident.

Duress

In criminal law, duress is a defense to a crime if the defendant was pressured or compelled to commit the crime by another. If there was a threat of serious imminent harm to the defendant or others and no reasonable escape available, then duress or compulsion can be claimed if the crime is of a lesser magnitude than the harm threatened. The common law recognized duress as a defense for crimes but not murder. Nowadays, "Under the Model Code, the defense of duress is not established simply by the fact that the defendant was coerced; he must have been coerced in circumstances under which a person of reasonable firmness in his situation would likewise have been unable to resist" (Pollack, 2009, p. 83). Compulsion refers to the forcible persuasion to an act. It also means the act of forceful and uncontrollable impulse to do something in the state of being persuaded. Duress or compulsion can take many forms other then physical force. It can be threats used under the heads of obedience to orders, martial pressure, and necessity. "Duress excuses criminal behavior where the defendant shows that the acts were the product of threats inducing a reasonable fear of immediate death or serious bodily injury" (Pollack, 2009, p. 83). Committing a crime because of fear of immediate danger allows state laws to excuse the criminal conduct. Duress excuses criminal culpability only if the defendant is in imminent fear of bodily harm by another with no escape and the crime cannot be any serious personal violent crime, such as homicide. To be cleared by reason of duress, the defendant must not have also been reckless in putting themselves in harm's way. Although not universally recognized, woman will use the defense of battered woman syndrome. This is to say that that assailant, typically female, becomes helpless because of constant abuse and is forced to commit crime because they fear there is no escape.

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Infancy

Infancy and immaturity is a legal defense and has been seen in criminal cases. Infancy means the state or period of being a minor and is a lack of legal capacity to be held responsible for a crime due to the age of the perpetrator. "Infancy, in this case, means only that the child does not have the capacity to determine right and wrong, the age of infancy is set by case law or statute" (Pollack, 2009, p. 70). The legal defense of infancy is a form of defense known as an excuse so that defendants falling within the definition of an infant are excluded from criminal liability for their actions, if at the time they have not reached an age of criminal responsibility. According to the common law, a child under the age of seven is clearly not responsible for their actions even if the child confessed to the act. A child between the ages of seven and fourteen is still considered infant and is not responsible but some cases can be overturned. The Model Penal Code establishes that any individual under the age of sixteen is to be tried in juvenile court but any individual older than sixteen but younger than eighteen at the time of the incident can be tried in adult criminal court if the juvenile courts wave jurisdiction. "The exact age at which a person is no longer considered a juvenile, and can this be prosecuted as an adult, differs from state to state" (Neubauer & Fradella, 2010, p. 49). Most of the state courts that have addressed the issue have declared that the infancy defense is inapplicable to juvenile court prosecutions because it was intended to guard children from the harshness of the adult penal system and therefore has no relevance to a rehabilitation-oriented juvenile court system. In the criminal law, each state will consider the nature of its own society and the available evidence of the age at which antisocial behavior begins to manifest itself. Juvenile delinquency is a form of immaturity and a child's criminal violations. Common crimes include theft, burglary, sale or possession of drugs, and criminal damage and vandalism to property.

Insanity

Insanity is a legal defense where a defendant claims to have been under mental impairment during the time of the crime. It is a legal term and refers to any mental illness that meets the legal threshold for incapacity. Defendants claiming insanity plead that they are not to be held responsible for their actions. In common law, "courts held that if the defendant had no understanding or memory to know what he was doing was wrong, he was like an infant or world beast and, therefore, not culpable" (Pollack, 2009, p. 73). Daniel M'Naghten was a woodworker who believed he was the target of a conspiracy involving the pope and British Prime Minister Robert Peel. In 1843, M'Naghten traveled to 10 Downing Street to ambush Peel, but mistakenly shot and killed Peel's secretary. During the ensuing trial, several psychiatrists testified M'Naghten was delusional. A jury agreed, declaring him not guilty by reason of insanity. This was the first case seen with the defense of insanity. To determine pure insanity of a defendant, certain rules are followed such as M'Naghten's Rules and a right and wrong test is administered because insanity is an affirmative defense. "To establish criminal incapacity under this test, a defendant must introduce at least some evidence to show that, as a result of his mental condition, he did not know the nature and quality of his act or did not know that the act was wrong" (Pollack, 2009, p. 75). The defendant must show burden of proof and competency to stand trial. In some cases, when the defendant is not declared legally insane, diminished capacity defenses are used such as premenstrual syndrome, post partum depression syndrome, intoxication, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and battered woman syndrome.

Necessity

Similar to duress, necessity is a defense used when the pressure that makes the defendant commit the crime comes from an outside source. In this case, the factors that affect the defendant come from the physical forces of nature instead of another human being. Necessity is sometimes referred to as the "Choice of Evils". "The evil sought to be avoided must be greater than that sought to be prevented by the law defining the offense" (Pollack, 2009, p. 87). Necessity excuses criminal conduct when it is done only to avoid an even greater harm. If one believes that they or another is about to suffer significant bodily harm and there is no other reasonable legal alternative to engaging in the criminal conduct, then one may claim this legal defense and not be held responsible. For example, if you are being chased and enter a random home without permission to seek shelter and contact the police, then it is excusable and you will not be charged with trespassing although you did not have permission. But here, your actions would probably be excused as being done out of necessity. Necessity is another legal defense that must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence. An example is the possession of marijuana as a medical necessity. The defense of necessity excuses criminal actions taken in response to exigent circumstances, and is based on the premise that illegal action should not be punished if it was undertaken to prevent a greater harm. "The test for necessity requires that the defendant faced with a choice of evils choose the lesser evil; it does not require that the evil perceived must be illegal under the law." (Graybiel, 1994).

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Conclusion

Justifications and excuses represent exceptions to those generally applicable prohibitory norms, precluding conviction and punishment in certain defined circumstances even where an actor has engaged in prohibited conduct or caused a prohibited result. A justification centers on the external, objective circumstances that surround an otherwise criminal act and seeks to determine whether, on balance, the act has benefited (or at least not harmed) society. In contrast, an excuse generally focuses upon an actor's individual characteristics and subjective mental state and aims to determine whether he can justly be held accountable.