disparity of force. woman defeats man.

Disparity of Force and Self-Defense

When it comes to self-defense law, courts look to the totality of circumstances.   There is no bright line test.  But one important factor is disparity of force.

Yes, disparity of force means what it sounds like.  It means that you can lawfully use force in self-defense reasonably proportionate to the threat of force you face.

The stress of the moment

Gallagher Criminal Defense logo smAs a defender from criminal violence, you’ll be aware of the situation and make your best assessment in the moment. As you do, you will consciously or unconsciously note factors that will guide your mental attitude and response actions.

If you do use force in self- defense, you may later be required to justify your use of force, legally. A jury, judge, police officer, media, and the community will all consider the factors you face.  You should consider these factors at the moment of threat to your personal safety.

But the people judging you will not experience the stress of being under attack, or the time pressure.  They will have the benefit of hindsight – access to information you did not yet have at the time.

Legal self-defense, too

Sometimes it seems that no matter what choice a person makes, someone imagines they could have done better.

That gap between the ideal and the real may seem inevitable, but how can we reduce it?

Physical self-defense training is vital.  But it’s also important to consider these issues deeply.  That way, when they come up we’ll be ready to make the right choices.

Disparity of force changes everything.  What are the factors that help make up the totality of circumstances for lawful use of force in self-defense?

Situational awareness

The first foundation of personal safety is situational awareness. We strive for a high level of awareness of our situation at all times. But humans have a limited ability to pay attention. When we divide our attention across multiple objects, we degrade our awareness.

We should heighten our situational awareness depending upon time, place and immediate circumstances. For example, relaxing within the safety of our home, we may have no problem multitasking. But while driving our car, or walking – we may divide our attention.  We might do two things at once.  If we divide our attention between those tasks and say, attending to our smart phone, we degrade our awareness and safety. 

The good news?  We can avoid dividing our attention.

Stay frosty

Alcohol and other intoxicants also degrade our awareness. When police stop a driver on suspicion of DWI, they will generally ask the driver to perform roadside field exercises. These are divided attention tests.

Alcohol can impair a person’s ability to divide her attention and perform two tasks at the same time. We can avoid the alcohol or impairment by alcohol to maintain our ability for situational awareness.

When it comes to criminal violence, we need to be aware of other humans. We need to be aware of proximity, threat potential, and potential responses to any threat presented (plan B).

We can adjust to threats before the risk of violence grows.  For example if we are situationally aware and spidey-sense a possible threat, we can cross the street or move away.

Sometimes situational awareness will not help us avoid trouble. If a physical attack suddenly presents, situational awareness can help us respond in the best possible way under the circumstances.  When it happens, we must weigh disparity of force factors instantly.

Disparity of force or threat

Disparity of Force and Self-Defense. woman defeats man
Disparity of Force & Self-Defense

The core of self-defense law is the use of reasonable force under the circumstances.  That’s why the question of proportionality is key.

If you face a threat of attack, or an attack, the law expects you to act reasonably.

It expects you to use force reasonably proportionate to the threat or force used upon you.

Several common factors increase the threat to you.  These include the size of the attacker, number of attackers, and weapons.

Size and strength disparity

If you are a 100 pound, 65-year-old woman facing a 200 pound, 20-year-old man threatening rape or robbery, would that disparity in size and strength justify your use of greater force than if the situation were reversed? We know it would.

Relative size and strength is a disparity of force factor.

Single attacker vs. multiple attackers

It is more difficult for one person to defend against multiple attackers than a single assailant. As a result, a person defending against multiple attackers must use more aggressive and more lethal force.

Against a single unarmed attacker, forcing them to initiate not only has a tactical advantage but also a legal one. But against multiple attackers, it may be necessary for the self-defender to strike first, perhaps against the apparent leader.

Multiple attackers are a disparity of force factor.

Sobriety vs. intoxication

Alcohol (and other drugs) is a wild card. It can cut in multiple directions. We should consider it, since most assaultinvolve alcohol.

Assuming a two person conflict, either or both may have been drinking. Generally voluntary intoxication is not a defense to criminal liability.  But it can have a big effect on both intent and physical ability. And even those can vary with the person’s level of intoxication.

Intoxication could make the aggressor a greater threat than if sober. If so, the use of greater or more lethal force could be justified.

Intoxication is a disparity of force fact.

The use of force continuum

The force continuum is the range of levels of force. Implicit within the term, use of force continuum, is proportionality.

Depending upon the circumstances, calling 911 and the presence of a police officer; or a verbal warning and display of a weapon, might be on the lower end of the force continuum.

We calibrate our response to the disparity of force the attacker presents.

Perspective matters

The community would like us to use the lowest level of force possible to avoid or resolve a physical conflict. Yet we view self-defense from the perspective of the defender, what they knew then, and the pressures of the situation.

See our related article: Self-defense and the Other.

In a criminal case, we judge whether an act was criminal from the point-of-view of the defendant.  Even so, the defendant’s acts must have been reasonable under the circumstances at the time.  Therefore, we must view all events from the perspective of a reasonable person in the defendant’s shoes.  If you’re a self-defender, you are that potential defendant.

Verbal and nonverbal communication

To the extent possible, it’s a good idea to communication verbally and non-verbally with the criminal assailant.  Give clear verbal warnings.

Depending upon circumstances, you may be communicating de-escalation or escalation.  Communicate whichever is then most likely to stop the threat or the criminal act.

See our related article:  Self-defense: Dominance, Escalation and Deception

Escalation, where used, should avoid fighting words or provocation.  Instead, use verbal commands to stop the attack, disarm, and the like. You may also be communicating so that your intentions are clear to any witnesses or electronic observation.

Where possible, call 911 to request police help as well as to create an audio record of what is happening.

Empty-hand defense

It’s good to have options, and it’s nice to have a weapon if attacked. Having a weapon does not mean it must be used. Empty-hand defense can also vary in level of force. For example, we might disable an unarmed attacker with a snap kick to the knee to break their leg. But if we are capable of stopping the attacker effectively with a lower level of force or injury, we will.

We will try to use the lowest level of force to effectively stop the threat from the assailant.

Armed with weapon

What if either you or the criminal attackers have a weapon?  A weapon is a big disparity of force factor.  And it can be a great equalizer.

Usually a person with a weapon will try to conceal its presence. We use our situational awareness to detect whether they have a weapon.  The weapon could be either within reach, on their person, or in their hand.

Since a weapon in hand is the greatest threat, we try to see whether a weapon is in their hand. A common clue is that the person conceals one or both hands behind or otherwise out of sight. If it seems possible, a verbal command may be in order: “Drop the weapon! Now!”

If you have a weapon, depending upon circumstances, you may choose to keep it hidden. Most trainers advocate keeping a weapon out of sight until it is necessary to use it.

Exception to the general rule:  Displaying a weapon as part of a warning to avoid injury could be reasonable, self-defense.  The circumstances make the difference.  Be aware, however, that showing a weapon can lead to a “brandishing” assault charge.

Perceived disparity of force turns out to be wrong

Legally, afterwards, the issue may arise of whether the defendant reasonably believed the assailant had a weapon.  This is a big problem when police don’t find a weapon later.  You subjectively perceived a disparity of force.  But it turns out you were wrong.

To reduce this risk, try to be sure the criminal does have a weapon; verbalize the presence of a weapon; and if possible be sure police later are able to locate it.  (Point it out.)

Lethality of weapon

When it comes to weapons, some have lesser or greater levels of force – for example pepper spray vs. a handgun.  So, the lethality level of the weapon affects disparity of force.

A weapon is a force-multiplier.  It can multiply the level of force that you are capable of using in self-defense.

Proximity to the threat is another factor that relates to force-multipliers.  A knife can be a better close range weapon than a gun, for example.

It’s nice to have choices, when it comes to lethality of weapons. Police officers generally have more equipment than other folks do. But whether we are at home, in the car, or out and about, most adults have choices available to them. The factors limiting choice may be, on the one hand knowledge and training, and on the other hand convenience.

Range and distance; proximity

Distance is important when it comes to reasonable fear of imminent bodily harm or death. Some open-hand fighting styles are long-range or short-range. A kick can reach farther than a punch. Different weapons have different effective ranges. A baton has a shorter range than an arrow.

A closer threat creates a greater disparity of force.

The law of self-defense has no bright line, just a totality of circumstances test.  That test means discretion.

Life experience, personal or indirect

Discretion is rooted in the experience of the beholder. Rather than personal training, today the average person’s “experience” is indirect.  It’s from  stories they’ve read, seen or heard.   Most often it’s in entertainment media such as songs, books; especially movies and television.

These mythological “experiences” are problematic since they tend to be wrong more often than not. For example, in the movies when someone is shot with a gun, they drop dead immediately.  But in real life, that is rare.

An attacker with a knife twenty-one feet away who is shot by a lawful defender, can still kill the defender with the knife. See The Tueller Drill.

“Once engaged, don’t stop until the threat stops. Once the threat stops, disengage.”

After you’ve been attacked, continue the necessary, reasonable use of force in self-defense until the threat is over. Once the attacker is disarmed, disabled or otherwise no longer a threat, the use of force is no longer necessary.  It stops.

It may be a challenge to determine when this point has been reached, depending upon the situation. It’s often a good idea to leave the area as soon as it can be safely done.  It’s a good idea to get help for the injured criminal if possible, possibly via 911.  If it is clearly safe to do so, render First Aid.

We do not seek retribution

We do not take it upon ourselves to punish, or teach a lesson to the wrongdoer.  Nor do we stoop to revenge.  We do not express anger.

Once the threat is disabled or stopped, we stop using force.

What do you think?

Thomas Gallagher, Minneapolis Criminal Lawyer
Thomas Gallagher, Minneapolis Criminal Lawyer

Are there other factors we can weigh when considering whether a person’s use of force was in self-defense?  How does disparity of force influence what is reasonable self-defense?

Thomas Gallagher is a Minneapolis Criminal Lawyer whose practice includes asserting the defense of self-defense and defense of others on behalf of clients.

Comments are welcome below.

1 thought on “Disparity of Force and Self-Defense”

  1. I think the biggest issue here is that self-defense is NOT a crime. I feel like people have been brainwashed by today’s lazy policing to believe that even if you act in self-defense you still will be arrested. That’s bad police work that ruins the life of an innocent person. Police are expected to take into consideration the “totality of circumstances” at every scene to determine if it’s reasonable to believe that one party may have acted in self-defense if a self-defense claim is being made. Sometimes the aggressor is the only party with injuries. However, there could be other surrounding evidence (totality of circumstances) that shows that the party with the injury was actually the aggressor.

    For example, a neighbor reports to police that they overheard a husband threaten to harm his wife in the next door house. Police show up at the scene and notice the husband has scratches on his face and the wife has no is crying and nervous, and also acts very protective of her husband (common demeanor of a victim). Police ask the wife about the scratches on the husband and she explains that her husband pushed her on the stairwell and she grabbed at him in an effort to protect herself from slipping off the step she was on. After catching her balance she got away from her husband and threatened to call the police. The husband then took her cell phone and hid it and threatened to kill her.

    Police now have a responsibility to look at all the facts. When asked, the husband admits to hiding the cell phone so the police know he took it from her (that’s also assault and battery if the phone was in the wife’s physical possession when he grabbed it away). Police also know a third party reported hearing the husband threaten his wife (a witness account). Based on the totality of circumstances, it’s clear that the husband made efforts to intimidate his wife and prevent her from seeking help. A victim wouldn’t threaten his wife and hide her phone to prevent anyone from calling the police. It should be clear cut that the husband was the aggressor. The totality of circumstances show the husband deliberately placed the wife in fear of her safety and therefore it would be reasonable to believe the scratches he sustained were a result of the wife acting in self defense.

    See how much easier it should be for police when applying the “totality of circumstances” concept? Police have a duty to make these determinations at the scene by means of a thorough investigation (rather than the “you call, we haul” mentality). Quick and lazy investigations lead to wrongful arrests. A victim should NEVER be punished for acting in self-defense. Once arrested, it’s too late to prove you acted in self-defense. A jury doesn’t stand up and say “we find the defendant to have acted in self-defense.” The jury will decide if the evidence proves you are guilty or not guilty of a crime. The best you can do, after being arrested, is argue you acted in self-defense to create a reasonable doubt with the jurors that the police and DA provided sufficient evidence to show you committed the crime you were charged with.

What do you think? Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: