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Indiana Self Defense Deadly Force Law

How is the term of art “reasonably believes” defined and applied under Indiana’s self-defense statutes given the General Assembly’s adoption of the no-retreat doctrine that allows one to stand his or her ground?

At Ciyou & Dixon, P.C., we frequently receive questions from our clients and the general public about Indiana’s self-defense laws, given our practice area covering firearms law. A number of legal concepts applicable to the use of deadly force are well developed.

This blog post starts with these. First, Indiana’s self-defense statutes have long provided a legal justification for the use of deadly force in three (3) factual circumstances:

  • To prevent serious bodily injury or death.
  • To prevent a forcible felony (there is a separate provision for hijacking of aircraft, but this is a forcible felony).
  • To prevent or terminate the other person’s unlawful entry of or attack on the person’s dwelling, curtilage, or occupied motor vehicle.

Second, this legal justification is nothing more than the legal authority to exercise what could, and likely would be, murder.

Where there is considerable confusion is with how the legal term “reasonably believes” and the no-retreat doctrine fit together under this statute justifying this use of deadly force; a relevant portion of this statute (self-defense justification statute) is set out for this post as follows:

“. . . a person is justified in using deadly force . . .and does not have a duty to retreat . . .if the person reasonably believes that that force is necessary to prevent serious bodily injury to the person or a third person or the commission of a forcible felony . . . .” Ind.Code § 35-41-3-2.

The various states differ as to their legal positions on requiring retreat from the threat causing risk of serious bodily injury, a forcible felony, or in one’s dwelling or on its curtilage. In a retreat state, unless and until a victim retreats from the threat if it is safe to do so, the justification for self defense does not attach.

In no retreat states, the policy favored is stopping these crimes and the potential or actual harm to victims over the life of the criminal. Most states fall in between including Indiana. Neither position is strictly the law. Ultimately, in close cases a prosecutor, grand jury, judge or jury will determine the application of the justification.

How Indiana comes down on this is determined by the statute and caselaw. The General Assembly did not define “reasonably believes” and left this to the judiciary. In 2007, the Indiana Supreme Court, in Littler v. State, defined this term by looking to other states and importing Alaska’s viewpoint and definition as Indiana law, requiring both subjective and objective components:

“To employ self-defense a defendant must satisfy both an objective and subjective standard; he must actually have believed deadly force was necessary to protect himself, and his belief must be one that a reasonable person would have held under the circumstances.”

Thus, deciding not to retreat and stand one’s ground must be reasonable to the victim, who may become a criminal defendant if he or she is incorrect, and what a reasonable person–an average member of the community (i.e., the jury would believe). A host of variables may come into play with the interplay of these two (2) legal doctrines.

A hypothetical example may help make the point. A would-be victim is standing in the bedroom of his home gazing out open french doors facing a flat open field on a sunny day. If a small female assailant wearing a mask walks in with a baseball bat and approaches demanding his watch, may the homeowner exercise deadly force and prevail on a self-defense justification?

The answer is likely no. Even if the homeowner believed this was necessary to protect himself, it is very unlikely a jury would. If even one fact is changed, namely the sexes, the analysis may vary dramatically and her use of deadly force may not raise an eyebrow. This frames the tension between no-retreat and what one “reasonably believes.”

This is not a light topic and one every citizen should educate himself or herself about. There are no do-overs. Every life is unique, and every reasonable measure, including retreat, should be taken to preserve it. Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. advocates represent clients with self defense and firearms matters throughout Indiana.


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Dixon & Moseley, P.C., is a law firm located in Indianapolis, Indiana. We serve clients in six core practice areas: family lawappellate practicefirearms lawgeneral practicepersonal injury and criminal law.

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