Much has been written in recent years about self-defense. A lot of the articles, particularly since the Zimmerman case in Florida, focus on so-called “stand your ground” laws. These are laws that provide, generally, that if you reasonably believe that your life is in danger, you are legally permitted to use deadly force against the other person, even when you have a safe exit from the scene of the threat. The specifics of the laws vary from place to place, but they are on the books, in one form or another, in about 30 states across the country.
The stand your ground laws, of course, deal primarily with the issue of whether, in a threat situation, you need to opt for an available non-violent solution (that is, fleeing the scene), rather than using deadly force. But what about the underlying issue of self-defense itself. What happens when person A says that he was threatened by person B, and proceeds to kill person B, in an alleged attempt to protect himself?
This brings us to a recent case out of Pima County, Arizona in which man A followed man B from a Circle K (after allegedly seeing man B steal two cases of beer) into the parking lot of a nearby fast food restaurant. At that point, man A says, man B raised a piece of wood, and man A proceeded to shoot and kill him. The county attorney’s office says they will not prosecute the shooter, stating that the chances of a conviction are too low. What’s behind this?
Self-defense is one of the “justification’ defenses that may affect culpability for an otherwise criminal act. Under A.R.S. 13-205, if a defendant in a criminal case presents evidence of self-defense, it is the state’s burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant acted without justification.
Is the shooter’s subjective perception relevant?
A deputy at the county attorney’s office said that the chances of a conviction would also be affected by the fact that the shooter suffers from hydrocephalus, a brain condition. While we understand that the burden of proof standard makes it difficult in many cases for the state to “disprove” a justification defense, we’re baffled at the reference to the man’s mental condition as a basis for the lack of prosecution. We say that because the “reasonable person” perception in self-defense cases in Arizona is an objective standard. This is clear from the statute, as well as from the Arizona Supreme Court ruling in State v. King. The question is whether a reasonable person would conclude that there was an immediate threat to safety, and that deadly force was necessary. So the mental state of the shooter, at least as far as the justification defense goes, should be irrelevant.
But whatever the actual basis for the lack of prosecution may have been in the case, it does point out that justification, in the form of self-defense, can be a viable defense to a criminal charge, and that defense can be difficult for the prosecution to surmount.
The Feldman Law Firm PLLC
1 E. Washington Street
Phoenix, AZ 85004