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A fairly simple fact-pattern pops into most people’s minds when they think of “self-defense” and the situations that it applies to. However, self-defense is not one simple act, a description, or even a mode of thought when applied in the realm of legal reasoning. Often times, many situations which may appear to be clear cases of self-defense are in fact not considered as such under the law. Also, some situations that appear at first glance not to be defensive from the perspective of the untrained eye may involve facts which show that a person was indeed acting in self-defense.
In most cases, the taking of another human life is considered among the most serious of crimes, punishable by death or by life in prison without the possibility of parole. Even accidental deaths can lead to serious criminal consequences; a fatal DUI accident, for example, is typically prosecuted as first-degree manslaughter and punishable by four years to life in prison.
However, the state of Oklahoma recognizes that, in some cases, the use of lethal force is justified and even necessary for the protection of innocent lives. A killing is ruled a justifiable homicide when a person lawfully uses lethal force in self-defense or in the defense of others’ lives.
Although Oklahoma self-defense laws are considered “permissive” by some standards, there are laws in place that regulate the circumstances under which the use of lethal force may be justified. The “Castle Doctrine,” and “Make My Day” or “Stand Your Ground” laws are all in force in Oklahoma, and these allow a person to defend himself or herself against threats to personal safety.
Acts of justifiable homicide are defined by Oklahoma’s law in 21 O.S. § 733:
Regardless of the circumstances surrounding a homicide in self-defense, the person who used lethal force would be wise to contact an Oklahoma self-defense lawyer for the protection of his or her rights during an investigation. This is of the utmost importance, as the facts which are developed during law enforcement’s initial investigation will likely drive the prosecution’s reasoning and grounds for deciding to charge a case as either first degree or second-degree murder, or possibly first-degree or second-degree manslaughter.
Since the early days of English Common Law, courts have recognized the right of people to be safe within their own homes. After all, if one cannot feel comfortable in his or her home, where can that person ever really feel safe? Because of this belief, all states allow the use of reasonable force for self-protection. In Oklahoma, allowing force in self-defense is taken a step further than in many other states: Oklahoma law allows a person the right to use deadly force against an intruder in his or her home, place of work, and even a personal vehicle.
The right of a person to be safe in his or her own home is often called the “Castle Doctrine” from the old adage that a man’s home is his castle. Self-defense laws allowing people to protect themselves in their homes and other places where they have a lawful right to be are often referred to as “Make My Day” laws.
Oklahoma’s Make My Day law is found in 21 O.S. § 1289.25, and it expands on the definition of justifiable homicide in § 733. It should be noted that “make my day” laws DO NOT allow for you to walk into a place of business and shoot multiple people just because your coffee has sugar in it.
Under the language of the law, the legislature recognizes that Oklahomans have the “right to expect absolute safety” in their homes or businesses (and occupied vehicles). For this reason, a person who uses defensive force against an intruder or someone attempting to gain unlawful entry into a home, business, or occupied vehicle is “presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm” to himself or herself, or to another person.
There are, however, situations in which the use of defensive force against another person entering a home or business is not justifiable. If the person against whom defensive force is used has a lawful right to be in the home or business, if the person against whom defensive force is used is lawfully attempting to remove children under his or her lawful custody, or if the person who uses defensive force is engaged in unlawful activity, the use of force will not be considered justifiable.
While all states allow the use of “reasonable force” in protection of the Castle Doctrine, Oklahoma and a few other states broaden self-defense laws by enacting a “Stand Your Ground” law. Under Oklahoma’s Stand Your Ground law, a person who is engaged in lawful activity in any place he or she has the lawful right to be, has no requirement to attempt to flee a dangerous situation created by someone else’s illegal activity. Instead, Oklahomans are allowed to fight for the protection of self or others from imminent harm:
A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force, if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony. 21 O.S. § 1289.25(D)
This “no duty to retreat” offers greater permission for self-defense than is available in states without Stand Your Ground laws.
The largest problem though is the exceptions to the general rule. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has refused to specifically explain what exactly an “unlawful activity” is. The Court simply will not give a definitive answer, and the only guidance it has provided is that the term only applies to someone who is actively committing a crime when he or she uses defensive force.
The Court of Criminal Appeals has also stated that not every violation of the law is considered an unlawful activity for purposes of the statute’s protection. It has directed that the use of an illegal weapon, having drugs on the premises, or furthering an ongoing assault against another person in the residence will be considered unlawful activity. However, minor criminal infractions, such as being illegally parked or having an outdated vehicle registration, having outstanding warrants for minor offenses (which is circular, since the Court won’t sufficiently describe what a “minor offense” is either), or being in arrears with child support will not be considered.
Each case’s specific evidence determines whether or not self-defense is, in fact, an affirmative defense. You can’t simply shoot someone because they have threatened you and claim self-defense. Claims of self-defense must be supported by evidence that the person who used lethal force was in fear of imminent harm, was not the initial aggressor, and only responded with the appropriate amount of defensive force necessary, among other considerations.
While a person may use reasonable force to prevent the commission of a crime, the use of lethal force is restricted to the protection of personal safety and the threat of great bodily injury or death. If an intruder is running away, for example, it might not be considered self-defense to shoot the person as he or she fled. If an attacker has been disabled and the threat neutralized, it might not be considered self-defense to kill a person who was no longer a threat. Moreover, lethal force is justified only in the protection of human life and safety, not in the protection of property.
Sometimes, a case of self-defense homicide seems cut and dried; other times, a person who thought he or she was acting in accordance with Oklahoma self-defense laws finds himself or herself booked into the Tulsa County Jail or Oklahoma County Jail on a murder or manslaughter complaint. If you or a loved one has used lethal force to defend yourself, your family, your co-workers, or others, it is important that you contact a self-defense lawyer for legal counsel and representation. For a confidential, risk-free case evaluation, call Oklahoma defense attorney Adam R. Banner at (405) 778-4800.