Fundamental Principles of Statutory Self-Defense

The common law right to use defensive force in North Carolina rests on three fundamental principles: necessity, proportionality, and fault. Ordinarily, when a person uses defensive force, the force must be reasonably necessary to prevent harm; the force must be proportional to the threatened harm; and the person using defensive force must not be at fault in the conflict. See John Rubin, The Law of Self-Defense § 2.1(b), at 14–15 (UNC School of Government, 1996). North Carolina’s new statutes on defensive force continue to rely on these principles. As under the common law, the statutes do not always refer to these principles in describing the circumstances in which a person may use defensive force. But, as this post is intended to show, the basic principles of necessity, proportionality, and fault remain central to the statutory rights.

Necessity. Under the common law, defensive force is permissible only when necessary, or more accurately when it reasonably appears to be necessary, to prevent harm. The common law expresses this principle in the requirement that the defendant must have a reasonable belief in the need to use defensive force.

The principle of reasonable necessity can be seen in the statutes on defensive force. A lawful occupant of a home, workplace, or motor vehicle has the right to use deadly force against a person who is unlawfully, forcibly entering those areas or had done so. This right arises because the statutes create a presumption of “reasonable” fear of imminent death or great bodily injury in those circumstances. G.S. 14-51.2(b) (stating presumption and also applying it to unlawful removal of person from those areas); G.S. 14-51.3(a)(2) (stating right to use deadly force in circumstances permitted by G.S. 14-51.2(b)); see also State v. Coley, ___ N.C. App. ___, 822 S.E.2d 762 (2018) (recognizing presumption of reasonable fear), review granted, ___ N.C. ___, 824 S.E.2d 428 (2019).

The presumption is new, but the principle of reasonable necessity underlies it. The presumption essentially views an unlawful, forcible entry as creating a reasonable necessity for the use of defensive force, including deadly force. The presumption is rebuttable as provided in the statute, a topic for another post.

The statute on defense of person also expresses the principle of reasonable necessity through a reasonable belief requirement. It states that a person is justified in using nondeadly force when the person “reasonably believes that the conduct is necessary” to defend against the imminent use of unlawful force. Likewise, the statute recognizes a person’s right to use deadly force when the person “reasonably believes that such force is necessary” to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm. G.S. 14-51.3(a), (a)(1); see also State v. Parks, ___ N.C. App. ___, 824 S.E.2d 881 (2019) (holding that trial judge erred in failing to instruct on self-defense where evidence was sufficient to support defendant’s assertion of reasonable apprehension of death or great bodily harm).

Proportionality. The common law distinguishes between situations in which a person may use deadly force against a threat of harm—that is, force likely to cause death or great bodily harm—and nondeadly force. This distinction implements the principle of proportionality, recognizing that deadly force is not permissible to prevent relatively minor harms such as a nondeadly assault or the loss of property.

The statutes retain this distinction by allowing deadly force against some threats of harm and not others. Under G.S. 14-51.2, an unlawful, forcible entry into the home, workplace, or motor vehicle is considered so threatening that deadly force is presumptively permissible. Under G.S. 14-51.3, deadly force is permissible to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm but not to prevent mere “unlawful force.” See also State v. Pender, ___ N.C. App. ___ (June 18, 2019) (recognizing distinction).

Both statutes contain a “stand-your-ground” provision, which allows a person to use deadly force without retreating. The right of a person to stand his or her ground, however, does not give the person the right to use deadly force when only nondeadly force is permissible. For example, if A slaps B, the stand-your-ground provision does not give B the right to use deadly force in response. B may only use nondeadly force if reasonably necessary to defend himself—his response must be proportional to the harm he faces.

Fault. The common law ordinarily takes away the right to use defensive force when the person is the aggressor in the encounter. There are different kinds of aggressors and different circumstances in which an aggressor may regain the right to use defensive force. Generally, the aggressor doctrine reflects the principle that a person is not justified in using defensive force if he or she was at fault, as that term is used in the law, in bringing about the conflict.

The statutes include an aggressor provision, which recognizes that the statutory rights to use defensive force are ordinarily unavailable to a person who provokes the use of force against himself or herself. G.S. 14-51.4(2); see also State v. Holloman, 369 N.C. 615 (2017) (holding that statutory provision allowing initial aggressor to regain right to use defensive force without withdrawing does not apply to aggressor with murderous intent).

The statutes contain an additional fault disqualification. The statutory rights of defensive force are unavailable to a person who was attempting to commit, committing, or escaping after the commission of a felony. G.S. 14-51.4(1). Two cases pending in the North Carolina Supreme Court raise the question of how far this disqualification goes. See State v. Coley, ___ N.C.___, 824 S.E.2d 428 (2019); State v. Crump, ___ N.C. ___, 820 S.E.2d 811 (2018); see also Wayne R. LaFave, Substantive Criminal Law § 10.4(c), at 211 & n.74 (3d ed. 2018) (noting that some state statutes declare that people involved in certain criminal activities do not have a right of self-defense).

In future posts, I will delve further into the specific conditions and circumstances in which a person has the statutory right to use defensive force.