Reasonable Force in Law: Definition & Concepts

Instructor: Brittany McKenna

Brittany is a licensed attorney who specializes in criminal law, legal writing, and appellate practice and procedure.

Reasonable force is used to prove that a person charged with a crime or facing civil liability was acting in self-defense. This lesson will introduce you to the concept of reasonable force through definitions and examples.


Consider the following harrowing scenario: a young man, Peter Partygoer, leaves a bar late one Friday evening. Before he can reach his car, a strange man approaches Peter from behind. Suddenly, the man grabs Peter by the hood of his jacket. The stranger wrestles Peter to the ground and begins to punch him in the head. Losing consciousness, Peter frantically reaches into his back pocket, retrieves his pistol, and shoots the stranger twice in the chest. Should Peter face criminal charges for his actions? Can the stranger's family sue Peter for damages arising from the stranger's death? Or is Peter nothing more than an innocent victim with a will to survive?

In general, a person is entitled to protect himself from a dangerous situation without fear of facing prosecution or civil liability. Reasonable force relates to the amount of force necessary to defend oneself or one's property. The concept of reasonable force is especially important in the criminal law context, because anyone who acts in self-defense may avoid criminal responsibility for their actions when the force used was reasonable.

When a person is charged with a crime like assault or murder, that person (known as a defendant) may avoid being tried for the crime, or may avoid being convicted of the crime, if he can prove that he used reasonable force to defend himself against an aggressor. A judge may determine early in the criminal proceedings that a defendant's actions were lawful, and will let the defendant go free. Or, a jury may hear all of the evidence at trial, including evidence that the defendant acted in self-defense, and may acquit the defendant of the crime.

Reasonable Force vs. Excessive Force

Force must be reasonable in order to be used as a valid criminal defense, or to be used to avoid civil liability. This means that you are only entitled to use the amount of force necessary to protect yourself from an aggressor. Anything more than the necessary amount of force is considered unreasonable, or excessive. An excessive use of force can't be used to support a claim of self-defense.

The definition of what is reasonable force varies depending on the circumstances. In order to determine if the amount of force used is reasonable, the reasonable person standard is applied. Under this standard, actions will be considered reasonable if a reasonable person would have acted in the same way under the same (or similar) circumstances.

Let's tweak the earlier example with Peter Partygoer to illustrate excessive vs. reasonable force. Imagine that instead of being approached by a stranger from behind, Peter encounters the stranger walking down the sidewalk. The stranger asks Peter for a cigarette, and becomes annoyed when Peter doesn't have one to spare. The stranger lightly shoves Peter and begins to walk away. Peter then pulls out his pistol and shoots the stranger at close range. Clearly, Peter's response to the stranger's aggression was more than what was required in order for him to keep himself save from danger. In other words, Peter's use of force was excessive.

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