Duress Defense: Definition, Laws & Examples

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  • 0:03 Under Duress
  • 0:43 What Is the Duress Defense?
  • 1:16 Duress Defense in a Legal Case
  • 2:18 The Duress Defense Law…
  • 3:10 The Duress Defense -…
  • 4:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Millicent Kelly

Millicent has been teaching at the university level since 2004. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice and a Master's degree in Human Resources.

In criminal law, duress can be used as a defense to charges that are brought forth. This lesson will define the duress defense, review laws that apply to it, and provide a few case examples where the duress defense was presented.

Under Duress

Tina is home alone with her two young children when suddenly two armed men break into her home. They threaten to hurt the children if Tina doesn't do exactly what they say. One of the men escorts Tina to her vehicle while the other stays to watch over the children. He drives Tina to the bank and gives her a note to provide to the bank teller asking the teller to hand Tina all her money. Tina does as she is told and hands the cash to her kidnapper. She is driven home and both men flee leaving everyone unharmed. Tina just robbed a bank under duress, which will be the defense used if she is prosecuted.

What Is the Duress Defense?

Duress occurs when a person is held against their will and/or threatened with violent action that results in the victim fearing loss of life or serious injury. Under the law, a person who commits a criminal action under duress should not be held criminally accountable for that action. In our previous example, Tina feared that harm would come to her children if she did not comply with the requests of her kidnappers. If Tina is brought to trial, her attorneys would likely use the duress defense to justify Tina's actions.

Duress Defense in a Legal Case

The laws regarding use of the duress defense vary by state. However, in general, the following three characteristics are usually required to be present:

  1. The victim is in immediate peril and danger of death or serious injury. The threat that is made against the victim must be constant. For example, holding a knife to someone's throat would be a qualified threat.

  2. The victim justifiably believes that the perpetrator is likely to carry out the actions threatened. A fear is considered justifiable when another person, given the same situation, would likely express the same fear.

  3. The victim is unable to get out of the situation safely without committing an illegal act. If there's opportunity to escape without injury, then duress cannot be used as a defense.

In addition to these three primary requirements, the victim can in no way be implicated in creating the situation that results in his or her engagement in the illegal action.

The Duress Defense Law in Florida

As an example, let's look at the requirements that must be met in order to use the duress defense in Florida. In order to use the defense, Florida law dictates that six requirements must be met. These include the following:

  1. The victim believes to be in danger in a situation that he or she did not cause
  2. The danger experienced by the victim can result in serious injury to the victim or another party
  3. The danger experienced is immediately present
  4. There is no way for the victim to get out of the situation without harm other than by following through with the criminal action
  5. The victim commits the criminal action to circumvent the danger
  6. By committing the crime, the victim avoided a more serious consequence

The Duress Defense - Case Examples

In order to understand how the duress defense has been used in the past, let's look at two cases in which the defense was applied:

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