Monday, April 25, 2011

When does it stop being self defense? - 5th and Washington Street Fight

It's fairly rare that I comment on law enforcement related issues, and perhaps I should more often.  One question that I get asked quite a bit is how much force you can use to defend yourself.  Where is the line between self defense and assault?

The simplest answer I can give that basically applies to most laws in North America, and I assume overseas as well, is that you can use as much force as is necessary to stop the threat.  When the threat is over, or you are out of danger, or you can get out of danger, you must stop.  It's really that simple.

Take the following video that's been circulating the Internet:

Wim Demeere has an interesting break down of the video.  Here's the link.

I won't go into it too deeply, but the, I'll call him the winner, clearly steps over the line from self defense to down right assault.  There is no excuse for the kick that you see near the end.  That was purely to punish the initial aggressor for getting in his face.  The guy was down, he wasn't even trying to get up.  He was essentially helpless and the other guy kicked him in the side, probably breaking a bunch of ribs.

The threat was over when the guy went down.  The first punch put him down. I might even be convinced that the second punch when the guy was on the ground might have been justified.  After all, who knows what the initial aggressor was capable of.  He might have popped back up and the fight could have been on.  So I won't discuss the first hit when the guy was down.

I take issue with the kick.  There is no way that anyone could say there was still a threat.  I have a big problem with anyone who kicks someone when they're down.

You have a right to defend yourself, but when the threat is over and you don't walk away, it's you that's breaking the law.


  1. You make a very valid argument. As a martial artist, one of the key goals is not to "win" in such an encounter, but to accept you don't have to "lose" - that is what my Sensei has mentioned to us. Getting home safe is the goal, when all is said and done.

  2. Yamabushi,

    I really like that, the goal is not to 'win', but that you don't have to 'lose'. Good advice to maintain perspective. It's really easy to get caught up in the moment and want to punish the other person, but one of the goals of serious martial arts study (in my opinion) is to not get drawn into this type of emotional state. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

  3. Wow, shocking! I'm not even sure he was justified in throwing the first punch let alone the kick. Though pre-emptive striking is justifiable in some self-defence scenarios I'm not sure this confrontation had escalated to that point. Then again maybe it had, the other guys verbal and body language was very aggressive. How do you decide when a pre-emptive strike is justified? Where does that stand in law?

  4. Sue,

    There is a fine line for when preemptive striking is ok. A preemptive strike is justified (more often than not) when you believe that the threat is imminent and cannot be avoided. The immediacy is an important part of the equation. It cannot be that you think the other person might attack at some point, it must be about to happen, or beginning to happen.

    I commend you on having a shrew eye on the video. I didn't mention it in my post, but if you watch closely, at one point you see the winner take off his watch and put it in his right front pocket, just before the punch. This showed that he had decided to engage the loudmouth in a fight. The winner would be hard pressed to say he felt the threat was imminent and that his preemptive strike was justified, when he had the wherewithal to remove his watch so it didn't get damaged. This tells me he didn't feel any immediate or serious threat.

    Preemptive strikes can be justified in certain situations. In the video, the punches appeared to be planned, and planned attacks are not easy to defend in the eyes of the law.

    Every situation is unique and is affected by what you bring to the situation. I can only speak in generalities about the video as I wasn't there, but a preemptive reactive strike to the initial push or chest bump would likely be easier to justify and articulate than stepping back, removing jewelry and then attacking.

    Many aggressors will also work themselves up, building up the confidence to actually attack. Preemptive strikes can sometimes be effective in this situation, but they can also aggravate a situation.

    Could the winner have walked away? I don't know. That could have pumped up Mr. shirtless even more, or it could have ended things.

    As a general rule, to use force, you must believe you are in immediate danger that you can't avoid. Laws are worded differently from place to place, but if you keep this in mind, you will most likely be able to defend and justify your actions. And sleep at night.

    Thanks for the comments and question. I hope I managed to shed a bit more light on the topic. I encourage everyone to review the laws in their area.

  5. Thanks Journeyman, I hadn't actually notice him take his watch off until I watched it again. Now you've pointed it out I definitely think his pre-emptive strike was unjustified. In my view there wasn't a winner - just a couple of big losers!

  6. I really hadn't watched the video so carefully, but the watch incident is quite surprising. As you said, you need to be able to sleep at night, and I don't know if I could after purposely choosing to attack someone whom I viewed as little enough of a threat to put my valuables in order before the attack.
    In regards to attacking first, the law is obviously the most important aspect.
    I would like to mention that there is the concept of go no sen, sen no sen and sen sen no sen. It is used a lot in kendo, from what I have seen, but I know of from the karate point of view. If you can sense the point at which the attacker has committed themselves to attacking, while no outward sign has been given (ie the attack has begun), it is tough for a witness to understand what is happening.
    Thanks for the great post.

  7. Yamabushi,

    The concepts you mention from Kendo and other martial arts are really interesting, and often difficult to translate fully into English. You point out how difficult it can be for a witness to understand what is happening. Often witnesses do not see or do not recognize threat cues that martial artists or security or law enforcement see.

    I'm still working on trying to achieve the higher level of sensing what your opponent is going to do in advance. Thanks for commenting.