Self-Defense in North Carolina

North Carolina law does not require retreat before use of self-defense. "Perfect" self-defense is a defense against criminal charges; "imperfect" may be used as a mitigating factor in sentencing.

The Elements of Self-Defense 

Perfect self-defense requires all four of the following elements:

(1) It appeared to defendant and he believed it to be necessary to use force to save himself from harm; 

(2) Defendant's belief was reasonable in that the circumstances as they appeared to him at the time were sufficient to create such a belief in the mind of a person of ordinary firmness;

(3) Defendant was not the aggressor in bringing on the affray, i.e., he did not aggressively and willingly enter into the fight without legal excuse or provocation; and

(4) Defendant did not use excessive force. 

Under North Carolina law the district attorney has to prove the absence of self-defense, beyond a reasonable doubt. 

The absence of lawful use of force is an element in assault and related charges. This means that a defendant has no obligation to prove that they acted in self-defense. However, a defendant's testimony is extremely helpful to establish their mental state and subjective perception of threat that justified the use of force. 

Imperfect self-defense is available when elements 1 and 2 are met, but either the defendant was the aggressor or used excessive force. Self-defense is codified in North Carolina statute at N.C. Gen. Stat. section 14-51.3. Under the statute, a person does not have the duty to retreat in any place he or she has the lawful right to be. Also, under N.C. Gen. Stat. section 14-51.2, a person in their home, workplace, or motor vehicle is presumed to be in "reasonable fear of imminent death or serious bodily injury" (such that use of deadly force is warranted in self-defense) if both of the following apply: 

(1)   The person against whom the defensive force was used was in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering, or had unlawfully and forcibly entered, a home, motor vehicle, or workplace, or if that person had removed or was attempting to remove another against that person's will from the home, motor vehicle, or workplace.

(2)   The person who uses defensive force knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry or unlawful and forcible act was occurring or had occurred.

The presumptions related to home, vehicles, and work are rebuttable, and do not apply in all cases.

When is self-defense not available as a defense? 

North Carolina law provides that self-defense justification is not available in two situations:

1. To someone attempting to commit, committing, or fleeing a felony. 

2.  Self-defense is also unavailable to someone who initially provokes the use of force against himself, provided, that he may if either the force used by the provoked is so serious that the person using defensive force reasonably believes he is in imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm, has no means to retreat, and the use of force was the only way to escape the danger OR the person who used defensive force withdraws in good faith from the person provoked and indicates clearly that he desires to withdraw and terminate the use of force, but the person provoked continued or resumed the use of force. 

Our courts have also ruled that an "accidental" death resulting from the use of deadly force is not entitled to self-defense. In at least one case, the defendant testified that he intended to fire a warning shot in response to aggression, and did not intend to hit or kill his assailant. The court ruled that a self-defense instruction was not available in that situation, because the use of deadly force in self-defense must be intentional. The courts have backed away from the ruling, holding somewhat reasonably that this intent does not have to be deadly and that use of deadly force to injure qualifies for self-defense. 

Self-defense claims can be complicated and are very fact specific. The smallest detail can make all the difference. As in any other case, even if a person feels strongly that they acted in self-defense, we strongly suggest consulting an attorney prior to waiving the constitutional right to remain silent. The slightest mistatement can potentially be used to deny the availability of a very strong defense! 

Our Wake County criminal defense lawyers have experience asserting self-defense in response to assault charges, and are available for a free consultation. Give us a call or use our contact form in the sidebar to schedule a teleconference or arrange an in-person meeting. 

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