In California, you are not required to retreat when threatened by an attacker. You are entitled to stand your ground and to defend yourself. That is true even if you could have retreated to safety without defending yourself.
If you are charged with a crime arising from a self-defense incident, prosecutors have the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that you did not act in lawful self-defense or in defense of another. If the prosecutor does not meet their burden, then the jury must find you not guilty.
What is lawful self-defense? To be lawful self-defense, the defendant:
- Must have reasonably believed that he/she or someone else was in imminent danger of suffering bodily injury or death;
- The defendant reasonably believed that the immediate use of force was necessary to defend against the danger. AND
- The defendant used no more force than was reasonably necessary to defend against the danger.
(See California Criminal Jury Instruction No. 3470.)
When considering whether your beliefs were reasonable, a jury would be required to consider all the circumstances as they were known to you and appeared to you when the danger existed. The jury would then be required to consider whether a reasonable person in a similar situation with similar knowledge would have had the same beliefs. If your belief was reasonable, then the danger does not need to have actually existed. This means that if you reasonably believed that the attacker had a gun, but did not, you can still be found to have used lawful self-defense if the jury finds that your belief was reasonable and that you acted upon that reasonable belief.
The third prong very often turns a good shoot into a bad one. If a jury finds that you used more force than was reasonably necessary to defend against the danger, then a jury can find that you did not act in lawful self-defense. For example, if you pulled out your gun after a mugger approached you and demanded that you give him your wallet, then the mugger turns his back and begins to run away but you shoot him anyways. In such a scenario, although you may have reasonably acted in self-defense when you initially pulled out your gun, a jury can still find that you used more force than was reasonably necessary when you shot the mugger in the back because the danger was over by then.