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Sua Sponte Instruction On Self Defense

On Behalf of | Feb 23, 2013 | Firm News

A trial court has a sua sponte duty to give certain jury instructions “regardless of the parties’ requests or objections.” (People v. Breverman, 19 Cal.4th 142, 155 (1998).) This requirement arises from a defendant’s Constitution right “to have the jury determine every material issue presented by the evidence” and prevents the “strategy, ignorance, or mistakes” of counsel in presenting the jury with an “unwarranted all-or-nothing choice”. (Id.) One such required sua sponte instruction is self-defense. (People v. Elize, 71 Cal.App.4th 605 (1999).) Moreover, the California Supreme Court has stated that:

In the case of defenses, we concluded, a sua sponte instructional duty arises “only if it appears that the defendant is relying on such a defense, or if there is substantial evidence supportive of such a defense and the defense is not inconsistent with the defendant’s theory of the case.”  (Breverman, 19 Cal.4th, at 157.)

However, even if a defense is inconsistent with the defendant’s theory, the court’s obligation to ensure that the jury determines every material issue is not complete. (Id.) The Breverman court further stated that:

[W]hen the trial court believes “there is substantial evidence that would support a defense inconsistent with that advanced by a defendant, the court should ascertain from the defendant whether he wishes instructions on the alternative theory.” (Breverman, 19 Cal.4th, at 157.)

Under the self-defense doctrine, a person “is privileged to resist [an assault or a battery] with such force as is reasonable under the circumstances.” (People v. Myers, 61 Cal.App.4th 328, 335 (1998); Penal Code §693.) Self-defense also excuses a charge of exhibiting a deadly weapon. (Penal Code §417(a)(1) [“except in self-defense”].) Moreover, substantial evidence, to support self-defense, “is defined as evidence, which is sufficient to deserve consideration by the jury, i.e., evidence from which a jury composed of reasonable men could have concluded that” the underlying facts of self-defense exist. (People v. Lemus, 203 Cal.App.3d 470, 477 (1988).)

An example of a trial court erring by failing to instruct on self-defense, sua sponte, is found in Elize, 71 Cal.App.4th 605. There, the appellate court found that a defendant’s testimony is sufficient to support self-defense, even if the defendant affirmatively testified that the criminal act was accidental and not in self-defense. (Id., at 610.) More specifically, the defendant, an armed security guard, was charged with assault with a deadly weapon after his gun was discharged in a brawl between him and two women. (Id. at 607-608.) At trial, one of the women testified that the defendant “shot at the [other] woman”, which was the basis for the assault with a deadly weapon charge. (Id. at 609.)

However, the defendant denied those allegations. (Id.) The defendant testified: that the other woman was beating him with a pipe; and that, when she lost control of the pipe, she “grabbed [his] handgun from its holster”. (Id.) The defendant then attempted to point the gun upward, but it fired. (Id.) The trial court did not give an instruction on self-defense, because the “defendant had testified that the firing was accidental and had not testified that it was an effort at self-defense.” (Id., at 610.) The appellate court reversed finding defendant’s testimony was substantial evidence. (Id., at 615-616.) The appellate court reasoned:

A jury could disbelieve defendant’s testimony that the gun fired accidentally during this struggle. A jury could find that defendant fired the gun intentionally, hoping to end the attack upon him either by hitting one of his assailants or by firing into the air to scare off his attackers. (Elize, 71 Cal.App.4th, at p. 610.)

At Kashfian & Kashfian, LLP, we have experience appealing wrongful convictions where the trial court failed to instruct on self-defense, and as your counselor, we will fight vigorously to obtain a reversal in your case. Contact our offices to learn more about the services that we provide.

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