FAQs on Wisconsin’s self-defense laws answered
Self-defense is one of the most commonly known defenses against a homicide charge, assault charge, battery charge, domestic violence charge or other violent crime. Despite this, many misconceptions exist regarding Wisconsin’s law on self-defense. Below are answers to common questions asked by criminal defendants accused of violent crimes who believe they acted in self-defense.
If you have been accused of a crime because you tried to defend yourself, call our trusted Madison lawyers at 608-620-0018 for a free consultation.
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 or she 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 can use force against another person if you reasonably believe force is 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 if I was defending myself against domestic violence?
All too often, the victim of domestic violence ends up facing charges of assault, battery or even homicide because they attempted to defend themselves. In some cases, the victim may even be charged with domestic violence. When police arrive on these calls, they may not be able to sort out who was the domestic abuser and who was the victim. That will need to be done in court later.
Domestic violence is frightening. When a spouse or partner commits a sudden and unexpected act of violence, it is hard to predict how the victim might react. People instinctively want to defend themselves, and may respond to violence with violence. Even actions taken to block physical blows may be perceived as violence themselves. When domestic violence is ongoing, the victim may feel trapped. Violence may seem to be the only way out.
Are these acts of violence committed by a domestic violence victim considered self-defense under Wisconsin law? As in other cases, Wisconsin law states that domestic abuse victims may only use reasonable force to prevent injury or death to themselves or their children.
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 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 Goetz & Otis, S.C., our experienced criminal defense attorneys understand the difficult situation you are facing and can help you understand your legal rights and options. Contact our Madison, Wisconsin, law office at 608-620-0018 or by email for a free consultation to discuss your particular case and circumstances.
Keywords: Self-defense, homicide, castle doctrine, criminal defense.