A justification means that a defendant is seeking to avoid liability for a criminal offense by showing the circumstances that justified the defendant’s actions. A justification is not a true defense. When asserting a justification, the defendant generally admits that he or she committed the offense but claims that his or her conduct was justified under the facts and circumstances.
A justification is similar to a defense in that a defendant has the burden of raising the issue and of producing evidence that supports the issue. The prosecution then has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant’s actions were not justified. The defendant is entitled to a jury instruction on the justification issues that are raised by the evidence, even if the issues are inconsistent with each other.
Most states recognize certain statutory justifications. Such justifications may include public duty, necessity, self-defense, defense of a third person, defense of property, and certain privileges regarding law enforcement officers, parents, teachers, and guardians.
A justification based on a public duty applies to anyone who is required or authorized by law to act in accordance with a judgment, a court order, or legal process. A defendant may claim the justification of public duty if he or she reasonably believed that his or her conduct was required to assist a public servant in the performance of the public servant’s official duty. The justification of public duty does not normally include the right to use deadly force.
A justification based on a law enforcement privilege means that a law enforcement officer is justified in using force against another person when he or she reasonably believes that force is necessary to make an arrest or a search, to assist in making an arrest or a search, to prevent an escape after an arrest, or to assist in preventing an escape after an arrest. The law enforcement officer must be acting within his or her official capacity in order to claim that the use of force was justified. The law enforcement officer may be justified in his or her use of deadly force when the officer reasonably believes that deadly force is immediately necessary to make an arrest or to prevent an escape. Although the law enforcement officer is not required to retreat before using deadly force, a suspect may be entitled to a warning before the officer uses deadly force, if the warning is feasible. A law enforcement officer is generally not entitled to use deadly force during a search.
In some states, a parent, teacher, or a guardian may be justified in using non-deadly force against a child if the parent, teacher, or guardian reasonably believes that force is necessary for the discipline of the child or to protect the child. However, the use of deadly force against the child is never justified. The degree of force and the purpose of the force are questions of fact for a jury. The jury is entitled to weigh the child’s age, sex, and condition and the circumstances that led up to the use of force against the child. Other states prohibit the use of force against a child under any circumstances.