I know that in Colorado we have the castle law for self defense which allows people to protect themselves with lethal force on or inside their property as long as they believe their life and family are in immediate danger. I’m not too keen on other States, but hypothetically, and god forbid, lets say a cop on duty and in uniform decides to commit a mass shooting at a public place. As an innocent bystander who sees no indication of lawful discharge, and witnesses others who did nothing wrong getting shot, if that bystander is armed and afraid of being the next person who gets shot. Could he or she use lethal force to stop the threat without facing legal consequences?


5 Answers 5


The answer provided by Dale M is half right, but there are a few things that I think are wrong.

Firstly, the actual reality of the situation doesn't matter. What matters is that you act in a reasonable manner, performing assessments of the situation as a reasonable person would do.

If you misread the situation, and end up killing a police officer that was acting in a lawful manner, it doesn't necessarily mean you were acting unlawfully yourself.

Because police officers are generally exposed to situations where they would be forced to use their firearm, that obviously would impact how a reasonable person would see the situation, but the test for reasonableness would not go out the window.

In addition, even if you were found to not be acting in a reasonable manner, there is certainly a question if you would be found guilty of a lesser charge of manslaughter rather than murder. It's possible the self-defence claim would be upheld as an imperfect defence.

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    So if a would-be mass-shooter acquired a passable fake police uniform, this could be a real problem. (Doesn't even need to be that passable as few people are likely to get close enough to examine it in detail once the shooting starts.) Commented Apr 20, 2022 at 14:07
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    @DarrelHoffman like Breivik did. Started shooting, caused panic, went to one harbor leading off the island in passable police uniform, shot everyone who came near him.
    – jo1storm
    Commented Apr 20, 2022 at 14:39
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    @DarrelHoffman This happened in Nova Scotia almost exactly 2 years ago, except they also had a replica police car. Also the police response was pretty bad. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_Nova_Scotia_attacks
    – JMac
    Commented Apr 21, 2022 at 19:07
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    @LorenPechtel it is a moment (or several minutes) of hesitation and confusion that they are counting on. Fake cop is not usually on top of the list people think in any given situation.
    – jo1storm
    Commented Apr 23, 2022 at 20:17
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    @jo1storm Yeah, it would cause hesitation. Someone being shot at is not likely to recognize the issue. I'm seeing the question as someone a bit back that's observing the scene. "Cop" behaving in an extremely uncoplike fashion = probably a fake cop. Commented Apr 23, 2022 at 21:21

Self defense is self defense

It doesn’t matter whom you are defending yourself (or others) from.

However, a police officer is allowed to use force in wider circumstances than anyone else. If you misread the situation and the officer was acting lawfully then what you did was murder, not self defense.

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    Self-defense is a subjective, not objective standard. A person having a good-faith, reasonable belief that their life is in danger is allowed to act in self-defense, even if the other person is acting lawfully. Commented Apr 20, 2022 at 22:55
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    Meh, a jury will understand the concept of "the fog of war". So it's not as clean-cut as "officer acted lawfully, therefore your action is murder". Happens all the time where neither party is found to be guilty of anything, you usually hear about it when police shoot minorities who, in hindsight, were innocent. Commented Apr 21, 2022 at 1:51
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    How could whether something is reasonable or not possibly be objective?
    – JakeRobb
    Commented Apr 22, 2022 at 16:51
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    @JakeRobb Subjective means "Was it reasonable for the defendant to think what they thought, given the mental state, history, etc". In other words: "Do we believe the defendant would have had this belief?". Objective means "Generally speaking, across society, would a reasonable person have this belief." Commented Apr 22, 2022 at 17:50
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    Is this one of those cases where the legal system has its own definitions for words which are in conflict with the dictionary definition? By the dictionary definition, both scenarios you gave are unquestionably subjective.
    – JakeRobb
    Commented Apr 23, 2022 at 21:16

Self defense doesn’t depend upon who you are defending yourself against, it’s your state of mind and the facts known at the time, not an after action evaluation with 20-20 hindsight.

Absent shape shifting space-aliens, if you see someone walking around in the premmie icu shooting babies, killing the shooter is going to be self defense no matter what uniform the shooter is wearing or what badges they may be carrying.

More realistic scenarios will be considered on a case by case basis, with a great deal of bias on the side of “reasonable people don’t see police officers as mass shooters”. Your scenario might be sufficient to keep you from getting into trouble IF the uniformed person was in fact a mass shooter. But no guarantee. If you are on tape dancing around and singing “I shot the sheriff”, the fact that the person was not a police officer and was in fact a mass shooter may be insufficient to keep you out of jail. If the shots by the uniformed officer were in fact justified, your ignorance is not going to help you too much. You’ll need something better than “I saw a cop shooting people so of course I thought he was a bad guy”.

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    Self-defense is not supposed to depend upon the nature of one's attackers. On the other hand, people who defend themselves against law-enforcement personnel who are acting in grossly reckless fashion often face extreme uphill legal battles, even in cases where the law-enforcement personnel deliberately acted to prevent the defendant from being aware that they were cops.
    – supercat
    Commented Apr 22, 2022 at 14:44
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    @supercat I half-remember one such case where police or prosecutor said, “They were not in uniform, but dressed in such a way that one should know they were police.” I would love to have that clarified! Commented Apr 23, 2022 at 3:42
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    @supercat: even facing the legal battle is wrong, but the prosecutor and cops are too tightly entwined in reality for that not to be a potential risk. There’s no such thing as internal affairs for prosecutors, so strategic and outright malicious prosecution is basically almost risk free. In most cases the worst they would face would be losing their job, and that would be something for which there was no political support.
    – jmoreno
    Commented Apr 23, 2022 at 12:00

In pretty much all circumstances (outside your home, if you are in a Castle Doctrine state), before you ask yourself "should I shoot that person?", you should first ask yourself "can I get to safety by removing myself from this situation?"

If the answer to the second question is yes, then I have a hard time imagining that you would succeed in your self-defense argument.

EDIT: My intent is to offer a perspective that might be shared by members of your hypothetical jury or others. If this is not how Law.SE should be used, please say so, and I'll be on my way. 🙂

Otherwise, allow me to elaborate:

Shooting someone should be a last resort. If you have an option that involves no death, take it. If you believe that an on-duty, uniformed police officer is acting unlawfully in the manner described, I would recommend that you:

  1. Seek shelter

  2. Contact authorities

    • In this case, I would recommend authorities of a different but overlapping jurisdiction. For example, if it's a city police officer, call the county or the state. You don't want the authorities who show up to be buddies with the shooter.

You said:

As an innocent bystander who sees no indication of lawful discharge, and witnesses others who did nothing wrong getting shot

Just because you see no indication of lawfulness does not mean the act is not lawful. Just because you didn't see the victims doing something wrong does not mean they haven't. You are taking your assumptions and betting an awful lot on them.

Your original question was:

Could he or she use lethal force to stop the threat without facing legal consequences?

Without consequences? I can't imagine.

If you shoot a uniformed police officer, justified or otherwise, you had better count on being arrested. If you're lucky, your story gets corroborated, the charges dropped before trial, and you walk. But none of that matters: you now have an arrest on your record, and that will carry legal consequences for the rest of your life.

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    – Community Bot
    Commented Apr 22, 2022 at 17:34
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    This answer ignores the fact that in all U.S. jurisdictions it is lawful to use lethal force to protect others from imminent grave danger.
    – feetwet
    Commented Apr 22, 2022 at 18:58
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    @feetwet also that (unless wikipedia is lying to me) the majority of U.S. jurisdictions have so-called "stand your ground" laws that abolish the duty to retreat anyway. (Colorado specifically doesn't have a statute law for that, but apparently does have case law/precedent.)
    – Carcer
    Commented Apr 22, 2022 at 19:03
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    @JakeRobb we conspicuously try to avoid giving "advice" on Law.SE. Presently this post consists of advice (first paragraph) and then speculation (second paragraph), with no discernable legal information. As such it arguably doesn't qualify as an answer on this Stack Exchange.
    – feetwet
    Commented Apr 22, 2022 at 19:14
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    @JakeRobb Remember: Stack Exchange isn't a forum for conversations. (I'd invite you to take the tour, but I can see that you already have, and that you have been around SE's for a while.)
    – feetwet
    Commented Apr 22, 2022 at 20:12

An approach to identifying if they were commiting a crime would first need to be established.

How do you know he is 'shooting up the place' and not performing his duties against a gang or alternative bad scenario?

Are they just 'executing' citizens for no apparent reason of course you can use lethal force to prevent the loss of life. Police officers are exactly that. Officers, they are humans who are subject to the law themselves. When they are 'on duty' their personal agenda's are not to be involved in their conduct. If it is then they are no longer a Police officer, just a criminal wearing a costume in the eyes of the law.

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