Virginia law protects the right to use reasonable and proportionate force to defend yourself or another person. However, you may get charged for a violent crime in a situation where you thought you were defending a third party. In that case, you will have the burden to prove that you indeed used force but only to protect the third party. Hence, you have no liability for the alleged crime. In your defense, you may have to present evidence and witness testimony. Proving your innocence can be a tall order if you don't have professional representation. That's why it is a good idea to seek the assistance of an experienced attorney to defend your legal rights when you are charged for a felony while protecting another person. Our lawyers at the Virginia Criminal Attorney can review your case and help prepare a strong defense to prove your innocence.

Virginia Law on Defense of a Third Party

In Virginia, every person has a right to life and the right to defend it. And it's not just your life that you should protect, but the rights of others too. That means Virginians are by law encouraged to stand up for one another.

While many states limit the defense of another person's life to one's family members, Virginia law grants you the right to protect even the people with whom you do not have a direct relationship.

However, defending another person can land you in legal jeopardy.

A situation may occur while protecting another person; you may harm or even kill the aggressor. And when you injure or murder someone, the law enforcement officers may see your act as a crime and charge you accordingly.

So when charged with a felon, you can raise the defense of a third party as the legal basis of your argument to justify your use of force, and that you have no criminal liability.

Generally, defense of a third party falls under self-defense principles. However, only a few Virginia statutes address self-defense. The Virginia Code Sections 18.2-57 addresses assault and battery while section 18.2-282 is on brandishing a firearm.

Therefore, the state drives most of its self-defense laws from case law, such as the duty to retreat and the castle doctrine.

Let me explain the castle doctrine and the duty to retreat a little more.

The castle doctrine. Also called “Castle law of defense” or “habitation law,” the castle doctrine is not a defined law that courts can invoke. Instead, it is a set of principles that courts incorporate into the existing law.

The castle doctrine defines a place of abode and gives you the right to defend it from intruders.

A place of residence could, for instance, be your home or even your car.

The doctrine gives you the right to use force, including deadly force, to defend your home. Further, the principle gives you immunity from legal prosecution as a result of the force you applied.

Virginia has a version of the castle doctrine that permits the use of deadly force if you believe a person intruding in your home will seriously injure or kill you or other people in your house.

The castle doctrine, therefore, negates the duty to retreat if you are in your home.

The duty to retreat. Many states require a duty to retreat before you can use force against an attacker. However, Virginia doesn't require you to withdraw so long as you did not provoke the attack.

Claiming Third-Party Defense in Virginia

Generally, you claim defense of a third party when the police or prosecution charges you with a violent crime like assault, battery, manslaughter, or murder.

Typically you will have to admit that you indeed used force or violence against the victim. However, the victim was an aggressor, and you only acted to prevent the victim from attacking or hurting someone else. You will also assert that the amount of force you used was proportional to the victim's threat. As such, your action was legal, and you have no criminal liability.

So the main issues in claiming third party defense as your legal defense will revolve around proving that:

  • The victim started the confrontation,
  • You acted to protect someone from being harmed, and
  • Your response was necessary and proportionate to the aggressor's threat.

Since the right to defend the third party is similar to the right to protect oneself, there has to be sufficient justification to use force.

Factors Justifying Use of Defense of a Third Party in Virginia

Defense of a third party, also called "defense of others" gives you the right to use reasonable force to protect a third person in a situation where the third person faces imminent harm from another person.

However, you can exercise the right of defense of others only under certain situations, and you will use the defense of a third party as a legal argument when you meet the following four factors:

  • Self-defense was necessary and justified
  • The person you defended was not the aggressor
  • You used proportionate force, and
  • You witnessed the attack on the third party.

Let's look at each of these factors in detail.

Self-defense was necessary and justified. The law requires that you place yourself in the shoes of the person you are trying to defend and consider if he or she would have a legal justification for the use of self-defense.

Also, the use of force should be necessary to protect the third party from further attack or further injury. If you meet this condition, then you are within the law to defend that person.

And, since the law allows you to defend a person who has the legal authority to protect himself or herself, you need to know when it's legal to use self-defense.

So, when is it legal to use self-defense?

You can use self-defense when you reasonably believe that it is necessary to use force to protect yourself from the "imminent" threat of attack, bodily harm, or death, by another person.

The operative word in this instance is imminent, meaning the threat has to be immediate and real. For example, merely being afraid that another person will harm you does not justify your harming him or her.

Let us illustrate this with an example.

Let's say you get into an argument with your neighbor. Tempers flare as the altercation heats up. Then you see your neighbor clench his hand into a fist. Instantly you punch him in the face and knock him down.

In that scenario, you have an excellent ground for using self-defense against the neighbor.

Your justification would be that the neighbor was about to hit you. Any person observing your altercation would agree that the neighbor was going to punch you had you not hit him first. So you can claim you acted to prevent an imminent attack directed your way.

The requirement that the attack has to be imminent serves a deterrent purpose. It means you should use force to repel an attack only when it is compulsory.

Compare the above exchange with your neighbor again.

This time the argument proceeds. The neighbor says that he will beat you to a pulp, but does nothing to show intent. He doesn't even touch you. In this case, you can't punch him and claim self-defense. The fact doesn't justify the use of any violence on the neighbor.

In short, you cannot hurt another person just because you fear he or she will harm you in the future.

The person you defend is not the aggressor. Virginia applies the law of reasonable belief for purposes of defense of a third party.

That is, you believe the person you defended did not provoke the fight and was in danger of suffering great bodily harm or being killed if you had not stopped the aggressor.

If the person you protected had started the altercation, he or she would be unjustified in using self-defense.

Virginia courts have ruled that your perception can be reasonable only if you witnessed the beginning of the fight. Otherwise, how would you have known the aggressor? The person you are defending could, in fact, be the one who provoked the attack.

And if she or he is at fault in promoting the assault, then he or she cannot justify self-defense. Neither will you be able to invoke the defense of a third party, should something go wrong.

So what do these rulings mean?

The rulings serve to caution you that you should not use force to defend someone that you are not sure had the right to use force to protect himself or herself in the first place. Otherwise, you may end up protecting a person who was not entitled to self-defense.

You used proportionate force. You must use force that is reasonable and proportional to the threat that the person you are defending is facing. The force should just be enough to stop the threat of any further injury. No overkill.

Naturally, reasonable force depends on the circumstances. So courts decide if the force was moderate on a case by case basis.

For instance, you may use deadly force to prevent an aggressor from using lethal force against the third person. But if the third party is not at risk of deadly force used on him or her, then you need to use non-fatal force as well.

You witnessed the attack on the third party. You will use third party defense if you indeed saw the person being attacked, so you used force to defend him or her.

Let's say you come home and find your dear wife nursing an injury. She tells you that the next-door neighbor attacked her. In anger, you go out and clobber the neighbor.

While your anger is understandable, your action is not in defense. In that case, you could be setting yourself for an assault charge.

So you need to understand the circumstances that allow you to defend another person. Plus, you must think carefully and act with caution when you have to use force to protect another person because you can face a criminal charge for it.

If you are already facing criminal charges or you think you might get charged for hurting someone while defending another person, you should consider contacting a criminal defense lawyer immediately.

An attorney with good knowledge on the defense of third party laws can help you to preserve evidence, collect witness testimony, or do whatever is necessary for presenting your case.

Using Third-Party Defense Against Someone Else's Pets

You can use third party defense to help a person under attack by another person's pet. Imagine you see a dog attacking someone. What should you do?

Well, the law gives you the right to intervene and defend him or her. In the event that you injure or kill the dog, the owner will not have much legal ground to sue you. 

However, you need to have followed all the steps for allowing third party defense.

Exceptions to Using Third-party Defense

Some circumstances can prevent you from asserting third party defense as a legal basis for your criminal charges.

The use of excessive force. If you use excessive or unreasonable force, you may lose the right to defend yourself using the third party defense.

For instance, if you use a firearm against an unarmed aggressor, you will have applied excessive force beyond what was necessary. Or the aggressor was armed but was running away when you shoot him or her in the back. Such an action will likely not meet the standard for self-defense.

Using force after the threat or attack has ended. Consider the scenario where on seeing you, the attacker started to flee. But you chased him, caught up with him, and then attacked him. That would not be third party defense, and you can get charged with assault.

Who started the fight? You cannot invoke third party defense when the person you are defending was at fault in provoking the fight.

Typically, the Virginia police and prosecutors evaluate the circumstances of your case and decide whether to charge you. They will look at your statement, eye witness reports, and also assess the physical evidence.

You should not be surprised to find the police or prosecutors don't believe that you had a valid reason to use force. Consequently, they may end up charging you for assault, manslaughter, or even murder. Other potential charges that the police can throw at you include reckless handling of a gun, brandishing, and disorderly conduct.

You can suffer severe consequences if the courts convict you on these felonies. So you need to act fast and organize your defense.

Elements of Defense of a Third Party

Depending on the circumstances, you can get accused of committing a crime while defending a third party.

With such an accusation, the prosecution has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed a crime. But in your defense, it will be your burden to show that you hurt someone in defense of another person. So you will have to present evidence and witness testimony at your trial.

And your defense needs to satisfy the three elements - that harm was imminent, you used reasonable force and that you were convinced the use of force was necessary.

Let's look at these elements more closely.

Harm was imminent. In your defense, you need to show that the plaintiff acted in a way that made you to reasonably believe that he or she was about to harm the person you defended.

While your belief could be correct or could be a reasonable mistake, the threat of harm to the person you defended must be real and immediate.

If, for instance, the attacker was already subdued or running away, then the harm to the person you were trying to defend was no longer imminent. Hence any use of force is not justified.

You used reasonable force. You only used the force that appeared reasonable to defend the third party. For instance, if you shot an unarmed guy who was about to slap another person, your act will be seen to be way overboard, and can't be considered as reasonable under the circumstances.

On the other hand, consider a situation where this guy was quarreling with someone then he suddenly whips up a gun and points it at his adversary. Here you may have an excellent legal defense for using deadly force.

Whatever the case, a jury will ultimately decide if the force you used was reasonable or otherwise.

Does a reasonable mistake negate defense? Often the dilemma you grapple with in your defense is whether you were 100 percent sure that the use of force was fair. Courts discourage the use of force to protect another to protect people from undue harm.

But there are situations where reasonable mistakes can still be allowable in defense. An experienced defense lawyer can help you understand your rights and prove your innocence in court.

How a Virginia Criminal Attorney Can Help You

The penalties for these felonies are severe, so it is worthwhile to seek the services of a defense lawyer with extensive experience in third-party defense laws. Some of the arguments a skilled advocate can make in your defense include the following:

You mistakenly defended the initial aggressor. In self-defense cases, you cannot justify the use of force if you provoked the situation. Unless, of course, you tried to retreat and end the conflict, but the other person continued to pursue you. However, in a third party, it is possible that by mistake, you defend the guy that had started the fight.

The mistake can quickly happen. Say, for instance, you see two people that appear to be fighting. One has a knife pointed at the other so that you think he is about to stab the other guy. You shoot the person with the blade thinking that you are protecting the other person.

Later it turns out that the guy with the knife was trying to defend himself from being robbed. So you shot the wrong person.

Your lawyer could argue in defense of another claim that you strongly believed to be doing the right thing only to realize later that you were mistaken.

You believed that a person was in danger when they were not. Sometimes you will try to defend a person in the mistaken belief that they are in danger.

Let's say, for instance, you turn into a dingy alley and find a woman screaming as two men are physically struggling with her. You may quickly go to her rescue, thinking that the men want to rape her. Only later to realize that you were flat wrong because the men were security officers making an arrest.

A good lawyer could argue to a jury that any reasonable person can make the mistake you made. And if you did not use excessive force in trying to defend the woman, the court might let you off the hook.

You used reasonable force. The jury will ultimately determine whether the force you used was reasonable or way too much. However, your lawyer could try to create a picture of the situation to show that it was more serious hence warranted more force than the prosecution suggested

Besides arguing your case in court, the lawyer could help you in the following ways:

  • Ensure witness testimony is correctly recorded and preserved for presentation in court.
  • Break down for you the legal jargon surrounding third party defense laws. You will be able to make informed decisions because criminal cases often tend to be complex, requiring fact-specific arguments.
  • State laws change, so you want a professional on your side who will be up to date with the current statutes.
  • Standing in court can be intimidating if you are not used to it. The lawyer can tell you what to expect in court, the type of questions the prosecutor is likely to ask, and how you should respond. The lawyer could even hold a mock trial with you to make sure you adequately prepare for the court appearance.

Find a Fairfax Criminal Defense Lawyer Near Me

Are you facing criminal charges in Virginia for using force while acting in defense of another person? While you have the right to act in defense of yourself and others, you must prove that your action was reasonable, and you used the appropriate level of force. We at the Virginia Criminal Attorney have vast experience in defending third party defense cases. Contact us at 703-718-5533 to arrange for a review of your case and see how our lawyers can help to protect your rights.