Colorado Self Defense Law – When Innocent Third Parties Are Injured
Colorado Self Defense Law – When Innocent Third Parties Are Injured – There are times when a person has lawfully acted in self defense and unfortunately, innocent bystanders are harmed. When this happens the law may act to extend the affirmative defense of self defense to those third parties.
This article explores that issue.
The Issue – Self Defense And Innocent Third Parties
Under Colorado law it is an affirmative defense for a Defendant to use physical force upon another person . . . to defend himself or a third person from what he reasonably believed to be the use of unlawful physical force, and … he uses a degree of force which he reasonably believed to be necessary for that purpose.
But what about innocent third parties who are not directly involved in the incident?
The scenario is clear. What we are analyzing is the situation where an accused exercises what I will call “perfect” self defense in a criminal case. This is a case where the person is charged – (usually) – with a crime involving violence legally uses his right to defend himself against the aggression of another. However, instead of, or in addition to, defending himself against the aggressor, he injures one or more innocent bystanders.
While no single Colorado case has addressed the issue directly – in at least one case, People v. Castillo (2014) the Colorado Court of Appeals seems sets the standard and answers the question indirectly – saying this:
Although a Defendant acting in self-defense against one person might not be liable for an unintentional injury to another person, the result is otherwise if under all the circumstances, including the need to defend oneself, the Defendant was reckless with regard to the bystander.
The essential nature of asserting a claim of self -defense in Colorado treats as justified the use of reasonable, proportionate and necessary force in response to an imminent threat of unlawful force.
To explain and fully understand the law in Colorado of self defense in different terms one must analyze each set of facts on an individual basis. Under the law, a person who is not the aggressor in an encounter is justified in using a reasonable amount of force against his adversary when he or she reasonably believes:
1. …. that he or she is in immediate danger of unlawful bodily harm from his adversary and
2….. that the use of such force is necessary to avoid this danger.
The nature of self-defense then is the legal justification for the use of force.
In a famous Colorado case decided in 1913 – the case of Henwood v. People, 54 Colo. 188, 194, 129 P. 1010, 1012 (1913), the Colorado Supreme Court said this in the context of the facts of that case – a case where the Defendant, having caused injuries to innocent bystanders, exercised otherwise legally justifiable self defense:
“[H]is action in this respect would be lawful, but, if he did so without due caution or circumspection, taking into consideration the presence of others in the barroom, he was not guiltless, but might be adjudged guilty of involuntary manslaughter…”
The Intersection Of The Modal Penal Code – Section 3:09 And Colorado Law Of Self Defense And Innocent Bystanders
Unlike other states (see Pennsylvania below), the law in Colorado as to possible harm that may be sustained by an innocent bystander does not provide an absolute rule that a Defendant who has a perfect claim of self defense against one person would never liable for unintentional injury to a bystander.
Rather the law in Colorado in this area is analogous and reflective of Section 3.09 of the Model Penal Code.
Section 3.09 of the Model Penal Code provides that a person who acts is justified in using self-defense but does so recklessly or negligently and injures an innocent person, may be found criminally liable. The Model Penal Code provides that the actor exercising self defense conduct himself in a prudent and reasonable manner when using force in that exercise of justifiable self-defense.
In Colorado, if a person acts recklessly (not negligently as in the Model Penal Code) in exercising his right of self-defense, he may be held criminally liable for injuries suffered by a bystander. A Trial Court must make certain that a jury considering self defense where there have been injuries to innocent bystanders, must understand that whether or not a Defendant acted as a reasonable person would have acted under similar circumstances.
Colorado Follows The Majority Rule – Restated
Stated again, under Colorado Law a person who acts recklessly in exercising his right to self-defense may be held criminally liable for injuries inflicted on an innocent bystander.
Even if a Defendant is justified in defending himself against his attacker, the issue of whether or not he acted recklessly towards an innocent bystande, is a question of fact that must go to the jury. A successful claim of self-defense does not automatically negate the element of recklessness with respect to persons other than the attacker.
Courts across the country are not in agreement on this issue. The majority of courts take the position as does Colorado and will allow a self-defense justification for the use of violence to “transfer” (similar to the donctrine of transferred intent), to innocent bystanders freeing a Defendant from criminal liability but this doctrine of transferred justification requires that the . Defendant act reasonably and not recklessly and with proper care to avoid harming bystanders.
Understanding The Reasoning Underlying Laws Governing Innocent Bystanders And The Exercise Of Self Defense – Absolute Immunity In The State Of Pennsylvania
In what may be the seminal case in this area, Commonwealth vs. Fowlin, 551 Pa. 414, 420 – 421 710 A.2d 1130, 1133-1134 (1998), the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held that a person who unintentionally injures a third party bystander while using justifiable force in self-defense may not be criminally liable for his injury to the bystander.
The Facts Of Fowlin.
Fowlin involved a shooting in a crowded nightclub.
On December 12, 1993, Fowlin was present in a crowded nightclub in Easton, Pennsylvania armed with a handgun. Three men, (two of whom were also armed with handguns) attacked Fowlin. One of the three sprayed pepper gas in his eyes during which time another man drew a handgun.
Fowlin believed he was about to be killed, and blinded by pepper spray, he drew his handgun and fired repeatedly in the direction of the attackers. He killed the assailant who had drawn the gun and wounded one of the others. He also wounded a bystander.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that one may never be held criminally liable for the unintentional injury to third parties while using justifiable force in self defense.
Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Flaherty said:
“… the law of Pennsylvania does not require one to stand by helplessly while he is injured or killed by an assailant. And as [a lower court Judge] aptly points out, when one is the victim of an attack, the assailant, not the victim, picks the time, the place, the manner, and the circumstances of the attack.
Leisurely assessment of the circumstances and the danger to others is almost never a feature of such an assault, and most often, the best the victim can do is to mount a defense which hopefully will preserve his life. In many cases, the victim has only seconds to act in order to avoid injury or death.”
“Any victim of crime who justifiably exercises his right of self-preservation may inadvertently injure a bystander. Admittedly, this court could fashion a rule of law which holds the defender criminally liable, but in doing so, we would have furthered no policy of the criminal law.
Instead, we would have punished a person who was acting within his instinct for self preservation and, in an appropriate case, within the boundaries of our law.”
While the Trial Court held that in order to avoid criminal liability, a person defending himself must not only be properly engaged in defending himself, he must not act recklessly. Colorado uses the same test. But Fowlin stands for the proposition that the proper use of self defense is a complete bar to prosecution for injuries to innocent bystanders.
Another state, Virginia, has actually codified this rule in their law VA VMJI 33.910
Transferred Intent – Self-Defense And The State Of Virginia
There are states, such as the State of Virginia, that have “codified” – (placed into statute form) – the law of transferred intent – or “transferred justification” for the use of force in an exercise of self defense involving innocent third parties.
Here is Virginia’s jury instruction on their law as it applies in this situation:
33.910 Transferred Intent – Self-Defense
If you believe that the defendant was acting in self-defense as to the actions of (name of person defended against) at the time he [killed; wounded] (name of victim) accidentally, then you shall find him not guilty.
Summary And Conclusion
The law of self defense is a complex area even for the most practiced Colorado criminal defense lawyer, When innocent third parties are injured in the legally justifiable act of self defense the situation becomes even more complex under the law as it presently exists in Colorado. The well understood doctrine of transferred intent should be logically extended to a doctrine referred to as transferred justification where a perfect act of self defense harms innocent third parties.
Colorado Self Defense Law – When Innocent Third Parties Are Injured
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The contents of this article are based upon my research, my personal experience and my personal analysis and opinions developed from my thirty six years (as of 2018) of criminal trial experience from both sides of the courtroom – as a former career prosecutor for Arapahoe and Douglas Counties (13 years) and as the owner of my own Criminal Defense Law Firm since 1999 (19 years).
The reader is also admonished that Colorado criminal law, like criminal law in every state and at the Federal level, changes constantly. The article appearing above was accurate at the time it was drafted but it cannot account for changes occurring after it was uploaded.
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