Assume a bank robbery with one or more armed gunmen, in the City of Los Angeles, such as occur in movies or real life, who arrive yelling demands and brandishing firearms at victims but have not shot anyone. In fact, the robber(s) initially announce that "no one will be harmed if everyone cooperates".

Obviously, any number of bad things could happen to innocent victims if some self-appointed vigilante assaults a robber, takes a robber's gun, or opens fire with their own weapon, say, from a cracked restroom door, or some other position where the advantage of surprise might exist. Or, they could be the hero of the day.

To be clear, this question is limited to the case where the bank robbers have not physically harmed anyone at the moment the heroic civilian decides to be the first to initiate deadly combat. This civilian is not acting out of fear for himself or the lives of others, but simply believes they stand a decent chance of ending the robbery through superior position, tactics, or knowledge of deadly force or perhaps is hyped up on adrenaline and simply wants to "spin the wheel".

How does the modern legal system deal with such a person?

Note: The question is hypothetical, and I am not currently in California. There are a number of bank robberies there, so precedents may exist in case law.


1 Answer 1


In California (as in all states) there is a justifiable homicide defense which might be used in such a situation. For the force to be justified, you have to reasonably believe you are in danger of being harmed, that you need to use force to avoid the harm, and you may only use the minimum force necessary to eliminate the threat. It then is a matter for the jury to decide whether those principles were followed in your particular instance. The reason why it's hard to predict the outcome is that it depends on a subjective evaluation by the jury, as to whether the shooter had a reasonable fear and whether lesser force was a viable option.

The jury's decision is guided by instructions to the jury (#506, #506) which focus on relevant distinctions. The jury will be told that "Belief in future harm is not sufficient, no matter how great or how likely the harm is believed to be", and that you have to reasonably believe there is "imminent danger of great bodily injury". My evaluation is that that does not describe the scenario in the question. There is some possibility of future harm... but not imminent harm.

People v. Ceballos (1974) 12 Cal.3d 470" states that "the rule developed at common law that killing or use of deadly force to prevent a felony was justified only if the offense was a forcible and atrocious crime" and "Examples of forcible and atrocious crimes are murder, mayhem, rape and robbery", and that could support application of a justifiable homicide defense in a bank robbery. But in the present instance, the bank is being robbed and the shooter is a by-stander. Despite all of the bank robberies in California, there is no relevant case from which one could draw an analogy.

  • 1
    Thinking about this a bit further, another interpretation of an absence of cases could be that the police, DAs, or Grand Juries fail to move such cases to trial. The Detroit Free Press reports an incident where a citizen emptied a concealed pistol at a bank robber after the bank robber had been given the cash and was leaving the scene, but failed to kill him. It appears that the citizen was not charged. The mayor used the case to remind citizens not to engage in vigilante justice.
    – Paul
    Aug 21, 2016 at 6:37
  • Youtube also seems to have a bunch of video of foiled robberies. Haven't quite found one that matches the hypothesized facts above, though.
    – Paul
    Aug 21, 2016 at 6:49
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    @Paul: I'm curious, did the mayor also use the case to remind citizens not to engage in bank robbery?
    – James
    Aug 22, 2016 at 11:36
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    Does your last part mean that someone hired by the bank (e.g. security guards) would be justified in using deadly force if they were being robbed?
    – Brandin
    Aug 24, 2016 at 21:34
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    It would be interesting to know whether it happened that the bank robbers shouted "no one will be harmed if everyone cooperates", but still shot people just before they left, to create chaos and make them easier to flee? If someone points a gun at me, and says he won't shoot me, is it a guarantee that he tells the truth? Maybe he wants to shoot me later when the situation is more advantageous to him.
    – vsz
    Nov 26, 2018 at 14:47

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