FAQs on Wisconsin’s self-defense laws answered

This article answers commonly asked questions regarding the legal argument of self-defense.

Self-defense is one of the most commonly known defenses against a homicide charge or other violent crime. Despite this, many misconceptions exist regarding Wisconsin's law on self-defense. Below are answers to common questions often asked by criminal defendants accused of a violent crime who believe they acted in self-defense.

If I acted in self-defense, I didn't commit a crime, right?

Self-defense is an "affirmative defense." An affirmative defense means that the criminal defendant admits to committing a criminal act, but had a legitimate legal justification for doing so. If a defendant successfully presents an affirmative defense, he cannot be convicted of the offense.. One defense against a criminal charge is to say, "I didn't do it." Alleging self-defense is saying, "I did do it, but I had to because . . . "

What is self-defense?

Under Wisconsin state law, a person "is privileged . . . to use force against another for the purpose of preventing or terminating what the person reasonably believes to be an unlawful interference with his or her person by such other person." In plainer terms, you are allowed to use force against another person if you reasonably believe force was necessary to prevent the imminent death or serious bodily injury of yourself or another.

You can only use the amount of force reasonably necessary to prevent the injury or death from occurring.

What does it mean to reasonably believe you are in imminent danger?

The law does not require that you become injured before using self-defense. It doesn't even require you to actually be in any danger. Instead, the law is all about what you reasonably believe under the circumstances.

For example, if a person pulls out an unloaded gun and points it at you in a threatening manner, you can use self-defense. Even though there were no bullets in the other person's gun, you would have no way of knowing that - so it would be reasonable to believe your life was in imminent danger.

Of course, the circumstances are rarely so clear-cut. Claiming self-defense is a nuanced area of the law, one that is highly dependent on the circumstances of the case. Ultimately, if you acted in self-defense, you must make your case to a jury that you reasonably believed your life or the life of another was in immediate danger and you responded appropriately.

What if it isn't clear who started a fight?

If an argument escalates to violence, it may not be clear who started the fight. If you initiated or escalated the violence, then you may lose your right to self-defense. However, if you attempt to withdraw from the fight, and are attacked, your right to self-defense again reasserts itself.

For example, if you get into an argument and shove someone earlier in the day, but leave, and are attacked later, you have the right to use self-defense.

What about burglars and trespassers? And what is Wisconsin's "Castle Doctrine?"

In 2011, Wisconsin adopted a law commonly known as the "Castle Doctrine." The measure created some alternate rules for people in their homes. Namely, if an intruder illegally enters your home, courts will presume you acted reasonably in self-defense if you use force against that intruder.

However, there are limits. For example, in 2014, a man was convicted of reckless endangerment after he followed two intruders who beat him out of his apartment and shot at them while outside. Although he invoked the Castle Doctrine, arguing that he did not know if the men would return and wanted to protect himself, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals held that the Castle Doctrine only applies to the inside of a home.

I have more questions. Where can I get answers?

If you or a loved one had to use force in self-defense, you are likely feeling a variety of emotions and have numerous questions. At Nicholson, Gansner & Otis, our experienced criminal defense attorneys understand the difficult situation you are facing and can help you understand your legal rights and options. Contact our office to discuss your particular case and circumstances.

Keywords: Self-defense, homicide, castle doctrine, criminal defense.