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How is a Self Defense Argument Presented in a Criminal Case in Florida?

In Florida, a person who has been arrested for a crime of violence, such as aggravated assault, cannot be prosecuted for that crime if he/she was justified in using force, i.e. committed the act in self-defense. In other words, Florida law provides that a person can use force against another person if he/she reasonably believes such force is necessary to defend him/herself against another’s imminent use of force. A person can use deadly force if he/she reasonably believes that deadly force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to him/herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony. (There are additional laws regarding use of deadly force in one’s home which can be found here.) A person does not have to wait for the other person to use force or commit the forcible felony. If it reasonably appears that the other person is about to use force or commit a forcible felony, a person can preemptively use force to prevent the attack or forcible felony.

How exactly does this defense play out when a person is charged with a violent crime when that person believes he/she had a right to use the force that he/she used? In Jacksonville, Florida and other locations in the First District, the criminal procedure allows a defendant to file a motion to have the judge dismiss the charges against him/her. That motion, which is filed by the criminal defense attorney, does not technically characterize the defendant’s justifiable use of force as a defense to the charges. The criminal defense lawyer’s motion will properly indicate that his/her client’s use of force renders the defendant immune from prosecution on the charges. Because the justifiable use of force defense is an assertion of immunity rather than what is referred to as an affirmative defense, the motion is made prior to the trial, and the judge will weigh the relevant evidence to determine if the defendant was justified in using such force. The defendant has the burden of proof, but the standard is by a preponderance of the evidence (i.e. greater than 50%) rather than the typical beyond a reasonable doubt standard the State has in a criminal case.

The judge cannot refuse to grant the defendant’s motion to dismiss the charge(s) based on justifiable use of force on the basis that the evidence on each side conflicts. The judge is supposed to weigh the evidence and grant the defense motion to dismiss if the defense establishes the force used by the defendant was justified by a preponderance of the evidence. If the judge makes such a determination, the judge must then dismiss the charge(s) against the defendant without the case ever going to a trial before a jury.