Self Defense – Defense of Others

As a Baltimore Maryland Criminal Attorney, I regularly represent defendants who are charged with Assault in the First Degree and Assault in the Second Degree. These are extremely serious offenses under Maryland Law carrying maximum sentences of 25 year for the felony and up to 10 years for the misdemeanor charge.

As I have discussed in previous blogs, it is a common misperception amongst many of my clients that the doctrine of self defense is not recognized under Maryland Law. This is simply untrue. The doctrines of self-defense, and its close cousin, “defense of others”, are recognized in Maryland as well as every other State in the Union. In fact, I successfully defended a client in Baltimore City District Court utilizing both of these defenses just last week. My client was charged with Second Degree Assault resulting from an altercation he had with another motorist after a traffic incident. Here are the facts:

My client traveling eastbound on Boston Street in Baltimore City one afternoon this past summer. His wife was driving and he was seated in the front passenger seat. My client’s mother in law was traveling behind them in her vehicle. At some point, he noticed a large pick up truck in his rear view mirror pass his mother in law in a very aggressive manner. The pick up crossed the double yellow lane and accelerated to a high rate of speed. Once it overtook his mother in law’s vehicle, it swerved sharply back into the eastbound travel lanes nearly striking her. The vehicle then began to tailgate my client and his wife and made several attempts to pass them in the same aggressive manner. After the second such attempt, my client instructed his wife to pull over and allow the truck to pass, which she did.

While this was occurring, my client’s mother in law came up behind the pick up truck and began blowing her horn both because she was trying to warn her daughter about the dangerous manner in which he was driving and, she candidly admitted in her testimony, because she was outraged by the dangerous manner in which he was driving. Just after passing my client, the driver of the pick up had to stop at an intersection. He then put vehicle in park, and walked back to my client’s mother in law’s vehicle to confront her.

At trial five witnesses testified. My client, his wife, his mother in law, the alleged victim and an independent witness who was working at a construction near where the altercation occurred. My client and his two witnesses testified consistently with what I have described in the preceding paragraphs. All three testified that when the alleged victim got out of his vehicle, he approached my client’s mother in law in a very aggressive manner and began cursing at her and pointing his finger in his face. They all testified that he was screaming in her face, “what the f–k is your problem” and “why the f–k are you beeping your horn at me”.

The alleged victim testified that he was just driving down the road minding his own business and he had no idea why my client’s mother in law was beeping the horn. He testified that he did get out of his car but that he calmly walked back to speak with her because he thought perhaps something had falling out of his truck or something else was wrong with his vehicle. He acknowledged cursing at her but only, he claimed, after she cussed him out first. I cross examined him hard on this point and it was clear that the judge was highly skeptical of his testimony. The independent witnessed confirmed our client’s version of the events up to the physical altercation. He testified that the alleged victim walked back to my client’s mother in law’s vehicle in an very aggressive manner. He said that it was obvious that he was angry and that a confrontation was about to occur.

At this point my client got out of his vehicle and all witnesses agreed that a fight quickly ensued between the two men. The alleged victim testified that my client struck him from behind, knocked him to the ground and then struck him repeatedly in the face and body when he was on the ground. The independent witnessed agreed that my client struck first, slammed the alleged victim into the vehicle and then knocked him to the ground. Under cross-examination however, he testified that once the alleged victim was on the ground, my client did not strike him again. My client and both of his witnesses testified consistent with the independent witness except that all three testified that the alleged victim pushed my client prior to being struck and knocked down.

In closing argument, I presented two theories under which my client could and in fact should be acquitted. Before doing so though, I pointed out the alleged victim’s version of the events leading up to the altercation made no sense and was directly contradicted by the lone independent witness. It was simply not believable, I argued, that my client’s 67 year old mother in law was blasting her horn at the alleged victim for no reason at all. I also pointed out that the altercation would not and could not have taken place had the alleged victim simply remained in his vehicle. It was only made possible by his decision to get out of his vehicle and confront my client’s mother in law.

I then argued that if the court believed my client and his witnesses, this was a clear case of self-defense because the alleged victim shoved my client and my client only used enough force to repel the attack. Alternatively, I argued that my client believed that his mother in law was in danger of imminent attack and he therefore had the right to defend her under the doctrine of “defense of others”. I argued that he had exercised that right lawfully pointing out that the independent witness testified that my client ceased striking the alleged victim once he was knocked to the ground.

The prosecutor argued that because the alleged victim had not struck the mother in law or made an actual attempt to strike her, that the doctrine of defense of others was inapplicable. I countered that he was not required to wait until she was struck or even to wait for an attempt to be made to strike her. The law only requires that he had a reasonable fear that she was in imminent danger of being struck.

In the end the judge believed the independent witness and found that doctrine of “defense of others” controlled the case. He stated that he did not believe that the alleged victim shoved my client first but he did believe that he was in reasonable fear that his mother in law was about to be struck. He agreed with my argument that it was not incumbent upon my client to wait until “his elderly mother in law” was struck or an attempt was made to strike her as the State’s Attorney argued. He agreed that my client’s reasonable fear that she was about to be struck provided ample legal justification for him to defend her with reasonable force. Finally, he ruled that he believed the testimony that my client stopped the attack once the alleged victim was knocked to the ground and the threat to his mother in law was neutralized. He concluded his ruling with the two words every criminal defendant prays they will hear – NOT GUILTY.

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