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Hypothetical situation:

Say the police are chasing me. I get tackled after which I go limp and stop resisting. Subsequently the officer starts throwing elbows to my face. I'm not sure why he's hitting me (...maybe he or his partner got hurt in the chase, or the adrenaline is still pumping, etc.)

I don't fear for my life: it's not like he has gone rogue, threatened to kill me, or drawn his gun. However, I do fear for my well-being.

Can I defend myself?

  • Yes, you could defend yourself but the officer or one of his colleagues would most likely fight back. This could end in you being killed. – Marcus Potter Jan 28 at 21:42
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There is a good amount of case law addressing this question going back two centuries. Legally, as soon as you are subject to "excessive force," you are allowed to defend yourself as you would against any assault, even if that force is being used in the course of an otherwise lawful arrest.

Furthermore, in some states you are still allowed to resist unlawful arrest.

Unfortunately, the matter is no longer as clear as it used to be. (There is a lot of material on this subject; just search for resisting unlawful arrest.) For example, police reflexively invoke a virtual safe harbor by shouting, "Stop resisting!" while battering arrest subjects. Video evidence has uncovered a plethora of examples in which this was done to subjects who were not only not resisting, but even later determined to have been incapable of resisting.

If you intend to defend yourself against police, even when justified by law, you need to realize that the system is stacked against you. Police carry the means of escalating to lethal force. So, for example, if you are being beaten but you are potentially able to physically overpower and restrain an officer, you will likely then be met with baton blows or tasers. Since a baton is a deadly weapon, you would be (in theory) justified in shooting an officer attacking you with one. But as soon as any officer shouts "gun!" you will be shot, and most likely killed. Police seem to be given the benefit of the doubt by prosecutors and grand juries when they claim, "I feared for my life." You (even if you survive) will likely have any such claim subject to a full criminal trial.

So even though you can legally defend yourself against excessive police force, these days you will almost certainly be unable to in practice.

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    I saw a case in the news where resisting questionable police force (attempt to arrest a man in his home w/ no warrant probably due to swatting) resulted in the death of five swat team members and no charges filed. – Joshua Sep 1 '15 at 1:55
  • @Joshua: Wow, that sounds pretty extreme and interesting. Do you have a link, or any info that might help find a report on that incident? – feetwet Sep 1 '15 at 2:48
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    I failed to find it again but found some similar cases. Here is one: infowars.com/… – Joshua Sep 1 '15 at 4:13
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    @bdsl: In the U.S. police are allowed to use any "reasonable and necessary" force to effect an arrest. The courts are quite deferential to police when it comes to deciding what constitutes reasonable force. So if police are battering a subject then in practice they merely need to establish that the subject was "resisting arrest." That's the safe harbor. "Police, you're under arrest, stop resisting" is a lawful order. Shouting "stop resisting" is taken as evidence that the subject was resisting when video is unclear (as it often is). (Even if the subject responds, "I'm not resisting!") – feetwet Sep 2 '15 at 22:14
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    @Joshua - Just found two more no-knock raids that resulted in death of police officers. One was found to be justified self-defense; the other not (presumably because the shooter was a felon in possession of a firearm). – feetwet Oct 18 '15 at 18:27

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