Types of Defense Against a Criminal Charge

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Williams

Jennifer has taught various courses in U.S. Government, Criminal Law, Business, Public Administration and Ethics and has an MPA and a JD.

In a criminal trial, the accused party is able to present a defense. Learn the various types of defense against a criminal charge, including lack of choice, lack of knowledge, double jeopardy, and insanity. Updated: 10/21/2021

Criminal Trials

A criminal trial is when two parties, a prosecutor representing the government and a defense attorney representing the accused, meet in court before a judge or jury in order to present evidence to support their case. As part of the criminal trial, a defendant is able to present a defense, which is a response to a criminal charge or a legally valid reason why a defendant might have committed a criminal act. There are various defenses to a criminal charge that will be discussed here.

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  • 0:01 Criminal Trials
  • 0:34 Lack of Choice
  • 3:12 Lack of Knowledge
  • 5:02 Double Jeopardy Defense
  • 5:37 Insanity Defense
  • 6:02 Lesson Summary
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Defenses Based on Lack of Choice

The following defenses all stem from the defendant claiming that he had a lack of choice in a certain situation.

The defense of duress is when a defendant states that he or she completed a criminal offense because a third party was threatening bodily harm or death to the defendant if he or she didn't complete it. In some states, some crimes are entirely exempt from the defense of duress. One example is that duress is generally not accepted as a defense to the crime of murder.

An example of when duress might be accepted by the court as a defense to a criminal charge is a defendant who commits a theft or robbery under the duress of someone who has kidnapped the defendant's child or loved one and is threatening that loved one with bodily harm or death.

The defense of self-defense is used when the defendant claims to have assaulted or caused death to the victim because the victim assaulted or threatened to assault the defendant first. This is a defense that is often seen by the courts. In this circumstance, the defendant will need to show that had he not acted in self-defense, that the victim would have otherwise caused the defendant significant harm or death.

An example of self-defense would be if there were two people involved in a road rage incident on the highway. Both of the vehicles eventually pull over, and the first driver runs up to the second driver's car. The second driver looks out of his car window and sees the first driver running up to his car window with a gun pointed at him. The second driver takes out his own gun and shoots the first driver. The defendant, the second driver, could claim that he acted in self-defense because he had an honest belief that the first driver was going to shoot and kill him.

The defense of necessity is used when the defendant claims that the act was done due to exceptional circumstances. This defense is generally used when the defendant claims that something happened that then meant that the defendant had no choice but to violate the law. In evaluating this defense, the court will look at whether there would have been any other reasonable alternative to this defendant's conduct that would not have violated the law.

The defense of necessity is not used or accepted by the courts often. This is because it does not set a good precedent to allow people to violate the law. An example where it might be used is where a parent drives intoxicated, which violates the law, in order to get his horrifically injured child to a hospital to receive emergency medical care.

Defenses Based on Lack of Knowledge

The following defenses all stem from the defendant claiming that he had a lack of knowledge in a certain situation.

The defense of infancy is used when the defendant is not of an age at which he can be held legally responsible for his actions. This age varies state to state. For example, if a five-year-old gets behind the wheel of a car, in most states he cannot be held responsible for running over someone in the roadway. This is because he is not of the age where he can be held responsible for his criminal actions.

The defense of mistake is used when the defendant was unaware of something or a certain truth that would have made his action illegal. This defense is also sometimes termed the 'defense of accident.'

An example of a defense of mistake would be if a store clerk sold alcohol to a 16-year-old minor, which is illegal, but the minor had presented a falsified identification and looked like he was of the age to buy alcohol. If the court believes that it was reasonable for the store clerk to have made this mistake, then the defense will be accepted.

The defense of entrapment is presented when the defendant committed the criminal offense because a police officer, who was disguised as someone else, persuaded him it was legal and justifiable. In order for this defense to be accepted, the defendant must show the court that he is an otherwise law-abiding citizen who, but for the police officer's actions, never would have committed an offense like this.

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