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Background

The other day my wife and I were ordering takeout from a restaurant. As we were leaving there was a really narrow doorway of people coming in and out. My wife, probably out of a mix of tiredness and single mindedly getting back to the car accidentally walked into another woman on her way out the door. She said "Did you see me going through the door? What the heck?". My wife gave a quick apology in response. I was right next to this and didn't think anything of it until now.

Suppose this stranger was not as understanding and punched or otherwise physically harmed my wife. As her husband, I feel I have an extra right to do something, I can't let my wife just be assaulted in front of me and do nothing. However, browsing around Quora gives me some mixed answers on this. So I come here to ask:

Question

What actions am I legally allowed to do in response to someone else physically harming my wife like in the hypothetical above?

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  • 42
    It seems you are talking about punishment not defense of your wife. If the person hits once and then walks away it isn’t really a defense situation. Dec 11, 2021 at 16:30
  • 27
    TBH, your wife did the 'right' self defence technique - to defuse the situation. Sometimes the best way to win a fight is not to get into one at all :) Dec 12, 2021 at 1:06
  • 14
    "I can't let my wife just be assaulted in front of me and do nothing". Quite right: it would be wrong not to go to the police, once you had both ran out of there as fast as your legs can carry you. My wife would punch me very hard if she thought I was trying to be something out of a movie. In movies the actors live to fight again after being shot dead by a crazy person with a gun. Your sense of "male honour" (it belongs in quotes) seems stronger than your desire not just to be another grim US gun death statistic. Dec 12, 2021 at 17:00
  • 6
    Beware of Quora, it's a really terrible site. You have answerers that know nothing about the topic at hand giving advice that do not match reality in any sense. I've found this to be true across many fields (from science to engineering to DIY projects to law) and would advise you use literally any other site but Quora for literally anything that matters to you at all. Dec 13, 2021 at 3:10
  • 4
    The fact that she is your wife might be relevant to your pride, but in most jurisdictions it's probably completely irrelevant to determine what is and what isn't self-defense.
    – Stef
    Dec 13, 2021 at 15:54

5 Answers 5

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This is a matter of state law, so let's look at a particular state: Massachusetts. My answer below is largely based on the Massachusetts model jury instructions for self-defense cases.

Short answer: the most problematic part of using force in the situation you describe is that you have a "duty to retreat" in the state of Massachusetts. In other words, you would not be justified in using force in your own defense or your wife's defense unless there was no reasonable way to get away from the assailant. (The opposite of a "duty to retreat" state is a "stand your ground" state; the Wikipedia article on the subject lists which US states are which.)


Long answer: You would be acting in defense of another (p. 17 of the instructions):

[A] person may use reasonable force when that is necessary to help another person, if it reasonably appears that the person being aided is in a situation where the law would allow him to act in self-defense himself.

In other words, your use of force to defend your wife is acceptable if it reasonably appears to you that your wife is in a situation where she would be justified in using self-defense. So would she be justified in using non-deadly force in self-defence?

To prove that the defendant did not act in self-defense, the Commonwealth must prove one of the following things beyond a reasonable doubt:

First, that the defendant did not reasonably believe he (she) was being attacked or immediately about to be attacked, and that his (her) safety was in immediate danger; or

Second, that the defendant did not do everything reasonable in the circumstances to avoid physical combat before resorting to force; or

Third, that the defendant used more force to defend himself (herself) than was reasonably necessary in the circumstances.

The second point would be the tricky one for your hypothetical case. In a public space, you have the "duty to retreat"; this duty does not apply in your home (the "castle doctrine"), but it does apply everywhere else. Here are the model jury instructions for this point of law:

A person cannot lawfully act in self-defense unless he or she has exhausted all other reasonable alternatives before resorting to force. A person may use physical force in self-defense only if he (she) could not get out of the situation in some other way that was available and reasonable at the time. The Commonwealth may prove the defendant did not act in self-defense by proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant resorted to force without using avenues of escape that were reasonably available and which would not have exposed the defendant to further danger.

You may consider any evidence about where the incident took place, whether or not the defendant might have been able to escape by walking away or otherwise getting to safety or by summoning help if that could be done in time, or by holding the attacker at bay if the means were available, or by some other method. You may consider whether the use of force reasonably seemed to be the only means of protection in the circumstances. You may take into account that a person who is attacked may have to decide what to do quickly and while under emotional strain.

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    Is this answer in any way impacted by the fact that in the situation as described OP's wife assaulted the other person first?
    – tbrookside
    Dec 12, 2021 at 16:58
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    @tbrookside: See p. 8 of the jury instructions. "Generally, the original aggressor has no right of self-defense unless he (she) withdraws from the conflict in good faith and announces his (her) intention of abandoning the fight." So if the OP's wife backed off and said "I'm so sorry, I didn't mean it" and the other person came back swinging, she could still have a valid self-defense claim (ignoring the other issues raised above.) Dec 12, 2021 at 21:06
  • If one is appealing to defense of others, does not the duty to retreat apply only if both the person asserting this defense, and the other person being defended, are able to retreat? Dec 13, 2021 at 15:32
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    @Acccumulation: From the first paragraph I quoted, only the ability to retreat of the person being defended is what matters. You can use force in defense of another person if that other person would have a right to use force in self-defense, and that person would have a right to use force in self-defense only if they were unable to retreat. This would mean, for example, that if I see someone cornered in an alley and being beaten, I could use force to defend the person being beaten, even if I personally had the ability to retreat from the situation. Dec 13, 2021 at 16:00
  • @tbrookside I see by my use of the word "shoved" you think she did the assault first. I have edited the question to read "walk into". That is a more accurate depiction of what happened. She didn't stiffarm anyone, it was more like rushing through the doorway, whilst someone else was walking in the opposite direction.
    – isakbob
    Dec 13, 2021 at 19:02
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In English law, you would have an absolute right to defend your partner (or in fact any innocent bystander) using what is referred to as 'reasonable force'. In this instance, you would be able to intervene and hit the other person with sufficient force to cause them sufficient harm to prevent their further attack, if you believed that there was a good prospect that they would continue to attack your wife after the initial punch.

A person may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances for the purposes of (in the alternative) [in the] defence of another;
...
"It is both good law and good sense that a man who is attacked may defend himself. It is both good law and good sense that he may do, but only do, what is reasonably necessary."

Crown Prosecution Service Guidance - Self-Defence and the Prevention of Crime

Your defence would be justifiable on several grounds;

  • The prevention of harm to another human being
  • The prevention of a crime taking place
  • That the incident occurred without premeditation.
  • That you were not the instigator

Notably (per R v Deana) you would also not need to wait for your wife to be struck before you could lawfully defend her, if you felt there was a good likelihood of her being struck by the assailant.

It's probably worth noting that although there's no specific guidance on whether there's anything special about defending a loved one, it stands to reason that a 'public interest' defence would be much strengthened if those bonds were evident to the Crown Prosecution Service. Conversely, your argument of reasonable force would be dramatically weakened if the other party was much smaller or you could have intervened without hitting them.

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There are two options in Washington state for using force against the assailant. The first is in defense of a family member, see RCW 9A.16.110(1):

No person in the state shall be placed in legal jeopardy of any kind whatsoever for protecting by any reasonable means necessary, himself or herself, his or her family, or his or her real or personal property, or for coming to the aid of another who is in imminent danger of or the victim of assault, robbery, kidnapping, arson, burglary, rape, murder, or any other violent crime as defined in RCW 9.94A.030.

There is no duty to retreat in a public place in Washington.

The second regards arresting a person for commission of a felony, per RCW 9A.16.020

The use, attempt, or offer to use force upon or toward the person of another is not unlawful in the following cases:...(2) Whenever necessarily used by a person arresting one who has committed a felony and delivering him or her to a public officer competent to receive him or her into custody

The crime must be at least third degree assault (not fourth degree, which is a gross misdemeanor). We would need more details regarding this hypothetical "punch". While any punching of a set of listed public servants doing their job constitutes at least 3rd degree assault, for plain old civilians, the criterion is that the person

(f) With criminal negligence, causes bodily harm accompanied by substantial pain that extends for a period sufficient to cause considerable suffering

or else

(d) With criminal negligence, causes bodily harm to another person by means of a weapon or other instrument or thing likely to produce bodily harm

but in your scenario there was no weapon. Note also per RCW 9a.08.010 that

When a statute provides that criminal negligence suffices to establish an element of an offense, such element also is established if a person acts intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly

Second degree assault involves "substantial bodily harm", which seems unlikely. Reliance on a lawful-force while effecting a citizen's arrest for punching is thus a risky choice.

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Suppose this stranger was not as understanding and punched or otherwise physically harmed my wife. As her husband, I feel I have an extra right to do something, I can't let my wife just be assaulted in front of me and do nothing. However, browsing around Quora gives me some mixed answers on this. So I come here to ask:

Question

What actions am I legally allowed to do in response to someone else physically harming my wife like in the hypothetical above?

You have a right to use reasonably necessary force to prevent further assaults that are in progress on your wife (or anyone else for that matter), in almost every U.S. state. But the question seems to assume a one off punch followed by the perpetrator's retreat, which is not a situation in which the use of force to defend another would be authorized.

You have a right to use reasonably necessary force to effect a citizen's arrest in these circumstances in most U.S. states for a crime that you observe was committed in your presence, and then to turn the perpetrator over to the police, although some states would not allow a citizen's arrest for such a minor crime even though you personally witnessed it.

What you do not have the authority to do under the law of almost any state is to use force against the perpetrator in retaliation or revenge or as punishment for their use of force, which is what the question suggests was your real intent. Authority to do that is reserved for the state in the United States.

Notably, Colorado has actually removed the crime of simple assault of this kind from its list of state crimes, although this would usually be a municipal ordinance violation in most cities, would be tortious, and in some circumstances might constitute disorderly conduct. But this could impair your authority to make a citizen's arrest in this case.

Many law enforcement officers and prosecutors, who are familiar with prevailing norms about responses by husbands to this kind of conduct, might decide that they would elect not to prosecute such a case even if your vigilante actions were technically a crime committed without legal justification, by concluding that prosecuting you would not be "in the interests of justice" under the circumstances.

This case would also be a ripe one for jury nullification at trial, in which a jury knows that the crime was committed by declines to convict anyway for its own non-legal reasons. A jury is never instructed that it has the authority to do so, but its practical ability to do so which is well guarded by relevant appellate law precedents is well established.

Also, it is certain that deadly force would not be authorized in these circumstances under the laws of any U.S. state and it is highly likely that if you used deadly force in these circumstances that you would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

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I am not a lawyer, but I am a CCW permit holder and have had training in this area. As the others have pointed out, the laws vary from state to state. Where you are has a great impact both in the literal application of the law, as well as what actions police and prosecutors are likely to take, and what a jury will decide. You're not going to have the same experience in San Francisco as you would in Hazard, Kentucky.

In general, the case seems to be that an assault that does not involve a weapon may or may not justify deadly force in return. In other words, if someone punches, shoves, or slaps you, you may not even be entitled to use any force back, if you believe the attack has stopped. On the other hand, if a person is unarmed but is assaulting you in a way which you believe your life is in danger, such as the Zimmerman/Martin case, then you can make an argument that lethal force was justified. In between, if a person is physically assaulting you and you can take moves to protect yourself, while seeking help and trying to back away, it will likely be justified in the eyes of the law.

Most states also have laws that cover intervention on behalf of someone you are associated with, in terms of trying to stop an attack. I am not sure about good samaritan laws in this respect - any training I have had has always been to remove yourself from the area and call the police. Now, if the attack is over and you punch someone, then you are on the same legal footing as they are. If someone is repeatedly hitting your wife and has not stopped, then you're going to be on more solid ground if you try to stop the attack - with force proportional to the danger - than if it were over and you got a cheap shot in to make yourself feel better.

Honestly, the best thing to apologize calmly and leave the area. Violence that occurs between two strangers often is because both parties have escalated with threats, shouting, insults, and so on. Additionally, if you are keeping calm and the other person does escalate to physical violence, then it will look far better to a prosecutor or a jury. Just don't fight if you don't have to. Let's say someone punched your wife, and you punch them back, and they hit their head on a curb and died. Well...study up on how to survive in prison.

I practice martial arts, both armed and unarmed, know how to use firearms (and carry one often), and have forgotten more ways to kill someone with my bare hands than most people know, and I avoid confrontation like the plague. I don't even blow my horn when someone cuts me off, and I am polite to everyone. Even if you're justified in self defense, it brings more problems than it's worth if you can avoid it. If you're not a cop, don't act like one.

Also, I am not a lawyer, but the above should be a starting point for helping you get familiar with the laws in your area and what you can and can't do to protect yourself and loved ones.

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