Does Maryland Law Recognize Self-Defense?

As a Former Assistant State’s Attorney and Baltimore Maryland Criminal Attorney for almost 20 years, I have prosecuted and defended thousands of people charged with Second Degree Assault and/or First Degree Assault. For reasons that I cannot understand, there is a very common misperception in the general population and even with some in law enforcement, that Maryland does not recognize the concept of Self-Defense. This is simply not the law. The State of Maryland and every other State for that matter, absolutely does recognize the legal doctrines known to every first grader as Self-Defense and Defense of Others.

The right of people to defend themselves against violent attack goes back at least to English common law and probably as long as people have gathered together in organized societies. It is an obvious fundamental human right so it is difficult to understand how how widespread this misunderstanding has become in Maryland. The only theory I can come up with is that people are confusing the concept of a Mutual Affray which Maryland does not technically recognize with the universally recognized theory of Self-Defense. I had a client come in and meet with me this week that I think illustrates this misunderstanding of Maryland Law on this subject well. Here are the facts:

My client is a 35 year old woman who has been involved in a relationship with her current boyfriend for about 3 years. They moved in together within a few months of the beginning of the relationship and have been living together ever since. The relationship started out very well (as most do) but has been deteriorating over the last year, and has recently started to become physical. As is typical in domestic violence cases, once verbal arguments become physical, the violence tends to escalate. My client advised me that although she had not previously called the police, her boyfriend had shoved her several times during arguments and in the argument immediately preceding the one that cause her to be in my office, he had held her down on the bed and choked her. Needless to say this was a frightening experience for her that caused her legitimate concern for her safety.

Last week they once again began to argue and he once again began shoving and grabbing her in an aggressive manner. She called the police because she feared for her safety and wanted him removed from the home, at least temporarily. According to my client, when her boyfriend heard her on the phone with the 911 operator, he became enraged and attacked her. She got free from him and retreated into the kitchen. He followed her in at which point she picked up a butcher knife, held it in front of her in a defensive posture. He wisely ceased his attack.

Shortly thereafter the police arrived. Following standard procedure, the police separated my client and her boyfriend to interview them. To her utter shock and amazement, the police then arrested her! This in spite of the fact that she was the one who called the police and, at least according to her, she was the one being attacked. The explanation as to why was even more of a shock to her.

Prior to arresting her the police officer asked her if she had picked up a knife and pointed at her boyfriend. She said that she had explaining that she was afraid that he was going to hurt her and was acting in self defense. The police officer then told her that Maryland, “doesn’t recognize self-defense” and that since she had introduce a weapon into the fight, he was arresting her. Needless to say the officer is simply wrong about the law. As I noted earlier, people have a natural human right to defend themselves and Maryland Law certainly recognizes this concept. The rule is simple, a person may use that force which is sufficient to repel the attack but my not use excessive force.

In this situation my client, a woman, was being attacked by a much bigger and stronger man. I would argue that she was simply not capable of defending herself from him without using a weapon. I frankly think she may have been acting within her right of self-defense if she had actually used the weapon on him instead of simply threatening him as she did given the size and strength differential between her and her attacker.

As I alluded to earlier, the only explanation I can come up with for this widespread misunderstanding is that people are confusing the concept of self-defense with that of mutual affray which involves a fight that is consensually engaged in by mutual combatants. It is essentially the, ” they both agreed to step outside to settle the matter” defense. Maryland does not technically recognize this defense but in practice it is routinely applied courts by judges simply ruling that they are not able to discern who the aggressor is and therefore have no choice but to find both defendants not guilty.

Whatever the source of the confusion is, the important thing to know and remember is that Maryland most certainly DOES recognize the concept of Self-Defense.

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