Thanks to some very high profile cases over the past few years, the topic of self-defense and the use of force has become a hot button political issue. We hear pundits and reporters give their opinions and spins on stories. We watch as talking heads debate cases ranging from Treyvon Martin to Michael Brown to Ray Rice. Most of the time I find myself frustrated because I’m not sure that most of the folks talking about the issue on television have even taken the time to look at the applicable law. I’d venture to say that most of them have never stood in front of a jury and had to argue for one side or the other. My goal in this article, and others I write, is not to take a side or a position in these cases, but to simply educate people about what the law in Georgia has to say about self-defense and other legal issues.

Georgia’s self-defense statute is found at O.C.G.A. § 16-3-21. In summary, this statute permits a person to use force against another person when he or she “reasonably believes” that force is necessary to “defend himself or herself or a third person” against another person’s “imminent use of unlawful force.” I’d like to point out several things about this law. First, it is very much dependent on the facts of each individual case. It is impossible to compare every self-defense case as if they are the same. Second, the law demands that the person using force “reasonably believe” that such force is necessary. I like to explain this concept to clients using an example. If your friend walks up to you and jokingly shoves you and says “what’s up” then you can’t respond by punching them in the face and breaking their nose. This is an extreme example, but it shows that a reaction to a shove or a show of force must be reasonable. Third, this statute allows a person to defend a third person from the use of force. So, if a person is walking down the street and sees a man getting beat up, then that person is permitted to intervene to defend the man receiving the beating. Finally, this code section only allows self-defense against an “imminent” threat or use of unlawful force. This means that the threat a person is defending against must be immediate and not something that may or may not happen in the future.

Notice that the above discussion did not include reference to the use of deadly force. In next week’s article I will explain when a person is authorized to use force that may result in death or great bodily harm. Again, this is a very fact-specific area of the law and hopefully it’s a concept that most people never have to deal with. However, I hope it helps people to know the extent of their right to defend themselves should a situation arise.

Jeffrey E. Johnston is a local attorney licensed to practice in Georgia. His practice focuses primarily on Criminal Defense and Personal Injury law. His law firm can be reached at (706) 869-8171.