In Colorado, you have the right to use reasonable physical force to defend yourself if you believe it’s necessary to protect yourself from danger. This principle is the Colorado Stand Your Ground law, and while it may sound relatively straightforward on paper, the realities are a little messier.
This is a complex law a criminal defense attorney will use to show that a person had no other choice when they made their decisions. It can be applied to a wide range of situations, so it's important to delve into how those situations will play out — both in real life and in a courtroom. We’ll look at how force is defined, how it's quantified, and how you can apply the law to real-life situations.
Self-defense is legal in Colorado when a person believes they are in physical danger. If they believe they are in harm’s way, they are allowed to use a degree of physical force that is appropriate for the circumstances. You are also allowed to employ self-defense to keep other people from physical danger.
This can mean deadly force if the situation warrants it. You do not have a duty to retreat, either, before defending yourself. For instance, you do not need to turn your back on an aggressor before springing into action.
The crux of this rule is that you are not allowed to be the aggressive party.
When people plead self-defense, it’s because they were accused of a crime. Claiming that you were defending yourself acknowledges that you committed a crime, but it was only because there were no other options. If you or your criminal defense attorney can successfully argue this, it means you aren’t at fault for any injuries or damages that may have occurred.
To prove a self-defense case, you must show that you reasonably believed that you or another party would likely suffer from immediate and illegal force. You must show that the force used was necessary to protect yourself and that you used a reasonable amount of force in return to prevent it.
Colorado residents are allowed to use physical (and sometimes deadly) force because state officials believe that residents have the right to defend themselves. In other words, you are not expected to attempt and leave an altercation before you use force, even if it needs to be lethal.
It is often easiest to use the Stand Your Ground defense if you are in your home. Colorado’s Make My Day law specifically refers to the use of force against home invaders, and it typically gives more leeway to the owner of the home in the case of injuries or even death. (We'll go into more detail about Make My Day below.)
To use it, you must reasonably believe that:
Please note that trespassers are allowed to use Stand Your Ground as a defense too. However, since property owners are allowed to use force against trespassers under the same law, the transgression against them will typically have to be severe.
For instance, a person mistakenly hops the wrong fence and the owner instantly grabs their gun before the fence-hopper can correct the mistake. The owner of the house points the gun at the supposed 'trespasser' and does not attempt to speak to them before readying themselves to shoot. Should the fence-hopper shoot the owner before the owner can shoot them, this could potentially be used as a claim for self-defense.
This is just one example of many thoughts about how the law can become very cloudy. How was the owner of the place to know that the trespassing was a mistake? How much time did they reasonably have to determine what was happening in the moment? These are questions that a criminal defense attorney can help answer.
No. You are only allowed to use deadly force if you are trying to defend yourself as opposed to your property. The exception in Colorado is if you need to use lethal force to stop a person from arson.
The best way to understand this law is to think about it in terms of severity. Punching a person to stop them from taking your watch may be justified, but shooting them would not be justified. You’re using force to defend yourself in both cases, but one option is far less consequential than the other.
In criminal law cases, the idea is that you’re using as much force as you’re being threatened with. (Ideally, you're using slightly less force.) As with many laws, how much force you use depends on the situation.
For instance, if Max shoves Bob, it would not be reasonable for Bob to kill Max with a gun under normal circumstances. However, if Max was potentially going to shove Bob off a 15-story building, the killing of Max would be justified.
To claim self-defense, you typically cannot have started the altercation.
To use it, you must reasonably believe that:
Stand Your Ground and Make My Day state many of the same basic facts. Stand Your Ground covers all situations, whereas Make My Day is specifically made for home invaders.
In practice, Make My Day is the stronger law concerning self-defense cases because people are less likely to question both the degree of force and its outcome.
Reasonable belief is a belief that you and others around you both have. When a criminal defense attorney builds their case, they’re doing so to try and show a decision-maker (e.g., judge, jury member, etc.) that they would have responded the same way.
The key to reasonable belief is showing apparent necessity, as opposed to proving that you were correct beyond all measures. For example, let's say that a mugger on the street holds up a pedestrian. If the assailant is reaching for their wallet after threatening to shoot the pedestrian with a gun, it would be reasonable for the pedestrian to believe that they were, in fact, reaching for a gun. Even if an attorney can show that the assailant was reaching for the wallet, the judge is unlikely to find the shooter guilty.
However, if a person believes that a car’s backfire is a gunshot and begins shooting others at random to 'protect' themselves, this would not be reasonable grounds for self-defense.
This is a tricky question to answer. Usually, the answer is no. If you started the fight or agreed to it in any way, you would usually not be able to claim self-defense. The only way around this is if you leave the fight and the other person continues to attack. In this scenario, you must make it clear to the assailant that you are leaving the encounter.
Yes. The laws are fairly similar, whether they’re applied to you or someone else. If you believe an intervention is necessary to keep someone else safe, this is a reasonable defense for any force you may have used.
In this case, you’re often trying to prove that the victim of the crime had the right to self-defense. For instance, if a mugger is threatening a pedestrian with a gun, this would be grounds for the pedestrian to defend themselves against a potentially lethal gunshot. If the pedestrian is not doing this, a bystander could reasonably step into the situation to help.
The main problem with defending another person is that it’s difficult to know what exactly is happening. Take the scenario above. If the mugger turns out to actually be an actor who was running a scene from a movie with a friend, the bystander would likely have had no way of knowing this. Thankfully, it’s unlikely anyone else on the street could have been expected to know either.
Because there’s often no time to figure out what’s really happening, the law takes into account how much time you had to react versus the reality of the situation. So long as the situation seemed dangerous to you and likely would have seemed dangerous to other people, this is usually enough to justify force.
We’ve referenced this law above, but it bears more discussion regarding the practical nature of the law. This is because there is a lot of nuance behind how it works. Formerly called the Homeowners Protection Act until 1985 and largely adopted from The Castle Doctrine, the law is based on the premise that people have the absolute right to safety while in their homes. Stand Your Ground laws exist in many states, and each one may have its own take on the matter.
The actual law says that occupants of any home in Colorado have the right to kill an intruder if they reasonably believe the intruder was likely to commit a crime. An ‘occupant’ could be anyone lawfully in a structure, including Airbnbs, house guests, and tenants. A ‘crime’ can be nearly anything, including even the slightest amount of physical force or unlawful contact. The occupants have no obligation to retreat in this scenario, even if there are multiple ways to escape.
This is where we need to define who exactly an intruder is, though, because unlawful entry and trespassing are not the same as intruding. For example, if someone picks a lock, this may be classified under unlawful entry or trespassing. Should a person slip into an unlocked back door, the occupant would only be justified in killing the person if they reasonably feared that the trespasser would inflict harm.
So you can see where this would get very confusing for a jury, particularly when it comes to showing intent. For instance, wouldn’t it be reasonable to conclude that anyone in the home is likely to commit a crime, and, therefore, it would be necessary to use force against them?
There are a lot of questions that arise with this law, but the most important thing to remember here is that your defense is always going to be the strongest when someone else is inside the home. If there are doubts, the benefit of the doubt is likely to be in your favor.
The Make My Day law only applies to those inside the home, though. It does not apply to intruders who may be at the front door, on the roof or balcony, or in the common areas of an apartment complex or hotel.
Self-defense under Stand Your Ground is not meant to help someone plead down to a lesser charge. You are not using it to get a reduced sentence for anything that may have occurred. It is a complete absolution for the person on the basis that they needed to protect themselves.
Second-degree murder is the act of killing a person with full understanding that death is a consequence of your actions. (There is no such thing as first-degree murder under the Stand Your Ground act, because first-degree murder requires intent and planning.)
If you killed someone in the act of self-defense, you could be arrested and charged with second-degree murder. If you can show that you reasonably believed that killing someone was necessary, you would be cleared of all charges.
Assault can be any event where another person is seriously injured. First-degree acknowledges that the person is intentionally committing the act against someone else. This altercation may or may not involve a deadly weapon, but it cannot involve a fatality.
So let’s say that you defend yourself against a potential shooter by punching them in the face. On their way to the ground, they break their neck and sever their spinal cord. In this case, you would not be held responsible for their injuries, despite their severity.
The same is true for second-degree assault. Both types of assault (first- and second-degree) include intentionally hurting another person. In the case of second-degree assault, the injuries aren’t as bad. Second-degree assault is typically easier to prove, as the consequences of the altercation aren’t deemed as serious. As with any of the above scenarios, you cannot be held liable if you can reasonably show that you were trying to defend yourself or someone else.
Violence in the home is treated differently than first- and second-degree assault, though in essence, the act of hurting someone remains constant in both scenarios. The main difference is that the punishment for domestic violence is usually worse than that of its first- or second-degree assault counterparts. (For instance, you might be given six months in jail for a punch in a bar fight versus two years for punching a spouse.)
Self-defense can be used as a way to avoid the additional penalties imposed by the court system. This is a common legal argument for domestic violence charges, but one that can be difficult to prove at times.
Because domestic violence is often not one-sided, the defense needs to show that the person claiming self-defense did not provoke the fight and showed their intent to leave it if they did. If a person can prove that they responded with a reasonable degree of force (as was necessary for the situation), they would be cleared of all charges.
This answer is again tricky, but typically you cannot use the self-defense claim if you are trying to resist arrest. You can only do this if you can prove the officer was acting outside the law. For instance, if an officer is attempting sexual assault against the person, this would qualify for the Stand Your Ground laws.
What would not qualify is an unlawful arrest. For instance, if your friend was caught with cocaine, and you were arrested simply because you were with them, this does not mean that you can use self-defense to absolve yourself of resisting arrest. In this case, you would need to comply with the officer’s requests and then argue your rights at a later time.
Please note that officers who are off-duty and security guards do not have the same rights as uniformed officers. Should one try to arrest you and you resist that arrest, you would be able to argue that you were acting in self-defense.
As you can see, Stand Your Ground and Make My Day are complex laws that need an expert's attention. Talking to a criminal defense attorney can make it easier to understand your rights under these laws and how they apply to the situation at hand.
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