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If a police officer physically attacks you, with or without intent to arrest, can you legally defend yourself? Assume that the police officer punches/kicks/grabs first, and you are not guilty of any crime before the attack. To what extend can you do so?

  • If they have the intent to arrest, guilt or innocence is irrelevant at that point, as long as there is reasonable belief that a crime has been committed (and implication, that you in particular have committed it). Perhaps you should focus the question on the more interesting and less clearcut situation. – Nij Jan 27 '17 at 8:24
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    In Spain there was a case in which an policeman in uniform punched a man; not a case of resisting arrest, just an argument in which the policeman thought that the other would not retaliate. The man retaliated and he was arrested; the judge ruled that since the officer was not acting as a policeman should have acted he was not entitled to the legal protections policemen have, and decided the issue as a brawl between civilians. YMMV, and don't forget that you will need proof (if it comes to your word against the word of the policeman you will always lose). – SJuan76 Jan 27 '17 at 12:58
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    A previous answers to a similar questions are found at law.stackexchange.com/questions/2208/… and law.stackexchange.com/questions/11865/… and law.stackexchange.com/questions/16141/… – ohwilleke Jan 27 '17 at 20:03
  • What about in a consensual combat state? – Chris Caviness Jan 27 '17 at 20:09
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The General Rule

In practice, the only time when self-defense against a police officer is legal is when you do not know and have no reasonable way that you could have known that the person attacking you is a police officer. (And arguably, a police officer acting in an official capacity in furtherance of his or her duties, rather than in a personal capacity as an individual.)

For example, if the police do a no knock raid in the dark of night, and don't announce themselves, and you shoot police officers reasonably believing them to be home invasion burglars, you would not have criminal or civil liability for doing so.

A similar valid self-defense claim might arise when someone has an objectively reasonable reason to think that someone claiming to be a police officer is really just a criminal impersonating a police officer, even if that belief is, in fact, mistaken.

In almost all other circumstances, you need to submit to the officers, and you are pretty much required by law to bear the risk that excessive force by the officer will harm you. If you don't, you will probably be guilty of the crime of resisting arrest and will not be entitled to a self-defense defense.

The fact that you are not actually guilty of a crime is irrelevant. This is often the case and police officers are not omniscient. If the officer lacked probable cause for an arrest (which there is often no way that the person being arrested or attacked can know at the time), the remedy is a civil rights suit after the fact, not self-defense.

In theory, there might be other isolated circumstances where self-defense against a police officer is legal, but they involve fact patterns so quirky that they would almost never happen in real life, or would almost never be possible to prove in a manner that the courts would believe.

Officer Liability For Harming Someone Legitimately Acting In Self Defense

Whether the officers had civil liability to you if you were harmed by the officers while exercising your right to self-defense would depend upon their state of mind, even if you were rightfully using self-defense.

For example, a U.S. Supreme Court case decided in January of 2017 (White v. Pauly) involved this fact pattern. In White v. Pauly an officer arrived late on the scene and had no reason to believe that the officers who arrived there before him and were being shot at by citizens in a house that they were approaching, lacked probable cause, or had not announced themselves. The court held that as a result, he had no civil liability to a citizen he shot, even if the person who the late arriving officer shot while that citizen was shooting back at the police officers on the scene was actually engaging in good faith self-defense.

The citizen's self-defense in the case had a valid defense to criminal or civil liability for firing on the officers, because the citizen shooting back didn't actually know that the people approaching his house were police officers. But, because the late arriving officer reasonably believed under the circumstances that the citizen had no right to engage in self-defense, because he thought that the early arriving officers had probable cause and had announced themselves, the late arriving officer had no civil liability to the citizens he shot.

  • This is rather interesting. What of the case where self-defense is deemed necessary to protect oneself from severe injury, even if it is clearly police officers creating the injurious situation? – TheEnvironmentalist Jan 28 '17 at 7:17
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    Cold comfort, but: This NJ Superior Court just upheld the NJ case law that a citizen can defend himself against excessive police force. Note that in this case it took four years for the citizen to be vindicated, since until this appellate ruling he had been found guilty of "resisting arrest" for attempting to defend himself against the police officers' excessive force. – feetwet Jul 10 '17 at 23:23
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    I would hesitate to agree with this answer in general as written - specifically the first sentence. If one reasonably believes the officer's actions are likely to cause death or serious bodily harm one is absolutely justified in using force assuming the officer isn't justified in using their force. Being justified in using symmetrical and necessary force in many cases has nothing to do with knowing whether or not someone is an officer, and everything to do with whether or not your use of force is predicated on reasonably believing your life is in danger. – jbowman Dec 1 '18 at 23:20
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    @jbowman I limit that general statement in the sixth paragraph, but wait until then and don't explore it in depth for a reason, which is that this is very, very rarely upheld in the courts as valid self-defense relative to how often it happens in real life and how often it should be upheld if the law were applied impartially. – ohwilleke Dec 3 '18 at 20:56
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    Fair point, I was just taken aback by the idea that you'd have to know it was an officer. – jbowman Dec 3 '18 at 22:16

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