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  • Writer's pictureEric Foster, Esq.

Self-Defense in Ohio: What You Need to Know

From time to time, I'll get a call from someone who has just been charged with a crime and they'll say, "No way I can lose, it was self-defense." I then have to respond that self-defense as most folks understand it is not the same as self-defense under the law.

Under Ohio law, to prove self-defense, the defendant has the burden of proving that: (1) he was not at fault in creating the situation giving rise to the injury that occurred, (2) he had reasonable grounds to believe and an honest belief that he was in imminent danger of bodily harm, and that his only means of retreat or escape from such danger was by the use of force, and (3) if deadly force was used, he must have not have violated any duty to retreat or avoid the danger.

The first element is pretty easy to understand. If you want to argue in court that you hurt someone in defense of yourself, you cannot be the person who created the situation which caused you to hurt the other person. This is the case even if, as many people argue, the other person "swung first." If you were the person who created the confrontation, you will have a difficult time successfully arguing you acted in self-defense under the law.

The second element of a self-defense claim requires a defendant show that he had a bona fide belief that he was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that his only means of escape was the use of force. Under Ohio law, this is a "combined subjective and objective test." This means that a person's belief must be objectively reasonable under the circumstances and he must subjectively believe he needed to resort to force to defend himself.

A person's use of force is objectively reasonable if the use of force is be determined to be reasonable based only upon the facts and circumstances at the time. There is no consideration of the person's personal opinion or thoughts. When we talk about "subjective belief" we are referring to what the person actually thought, felt, and believed at the time the force was used.

Another piece of the second element is that a defendant is only entitled to use "only that force that is necessary to repel the attack." This means that the use of force by the defendant must have been proportional to the force used by the alleged victim. In other words, if someone slaps you, you are not entitled to pull out a gun and shoot them. If you do, a court could find that your shooting was "so disproportionate that it shows an unreasonable purpose to injure." In that case, your claim of self-defense would fail.

As to the final element, if someone uses deadly force, the question is whether they violated a duty to retreat. Generally, if you are able to safely retreat, you have a duty to do so instead of using deadly force to protect yourself. This means that as a general rule, you can only use deadly force to protect yourself if there is no other way to safely exit the situation.

However, there is no duty to retreat in your own home or in your vehicle or the vehicle of an immediate family member. In fact, if you use force (up to even deadly force) to protect yourself or another person in these places, you are presumed to have acted in self-defense.

I should mention that in 2019, Ohio law changed surrounding the burden of proof when a defendant alleges he acted in self-defense. Previously, the defendant had to show his use of force was justified. Now, where a defendant claims he acted in self-defense, the State has to prove that he did not act in self-defense. While this change only brought Ohio in line with the large majority of other states, it has made it more difficult for prosecutors to prevail where a defendant has evidence that he acted in self-defense.

This is a general overview of self-defense law in Ohio. I hope this helps. And as always, if you are charged with a crime you believe you committed in self-defense, it is wise to contact an attorney as soon as possible to discuss your case!

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