Monday, June 10, 2013

A Warrior's Guide to Self-Defense Law: 3 - Defending yourself from nonlethal, unlawful use of force

 Self-defense law can be a daunting block of text, but it is also the only thing that will separate your actions between "justified personal protection" and "manslaughter". In this post, I offer a comprehensive overview of Illinois self-defense laws as they pertain to a variety of scenarios, all from the perspective of a lifelong Chicagoan and semi-experienced martial artist.

Introduction: "Justifiable use of force" and martial arts
Chapter 1: Defending yourself from death or great bodily harm
Chapter 2: Defending another from death or great bodily harm
Chapter 3: Defending yourself from nonlethal, unlawful use of force
Chapter 4: Defending another from nonlethal, unlawful use of force

All sections include both a "Simple Summary" of the relevant laws, a detailed discussion, and some illustrative examples. Note that these examples are NOT exhaustive and NOT prescriptive. There are always exceptions and complications to every situation presented. I give them as a good starting point to get you thinking, not as legal advice. Finally, as an all-important disclaimer, I am not a lawyer. This post does not constitute legal advice. For the final word on legal issues, talk to a police officer or a lawyer in your city. 


If someone uses unlawful and criminal force against you without threatening your life, and there are no other ways to avoid or escape, then you may use the minimum amount of force necessary to defend yourself. Once you are safe, you must stop using such force. 

The majority of martial artists will go their entire lives without throwing a single punch outside of the gym. If we use any technique to protect ourselves, it is a fall break after slipping on Chicago's infamous February ice. Even for those unlucky few that one day must defend themselves, chances are good that their attacker will not be trying to kill or maim. He or she will punch, slap, tackle, kick, pull hair, claw, and generally brawl around. If any of this violence escalates to life-threatening levels, or involves a weapon, go back to Chapter 1. But if it stays at the brawling level, Section 7-1 considers such an attack to just be "unlawful use of force." As you might imagine, with a lowered level of aggressor force comes a lower legal limit to defensive force. 
  • Section 7-1: Use of force in defense of a person
    A person is justified in the use of force against another when and to the extent that he reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or another against such other's imminent use of unlawful force...
Unlike in Chapters 1 and 2, we are no longer dealing with unlawful force that is likely to cause death or great bodily harm. Your attacker is almost certainly unarmed, has not communicated or indicated any lethal intent, and is not trying to commit an egregiously violent crime, such as rape, murder, aggravated battery, kidnapping, etc.

In such a situation, martial artists and non-martial artists face a whole new range of restrictions. The most important: You CANNOT use any technique that is likely to result in death or great bodily harm. Section 7-1 does allow for such techniques (as discussed in Chapters 1 and 2), but ONLY if your attacker is also using such force. But in the case of generally unlawful force, (i.e. a brawl, a mugging, a snatch and grab, etc.) your attacker is definitionally not trying to kill or cripple you. As such, all of your techniques that have the potential to maim or murder must be completely removed from your martial arsenal. 

This restriction has profound implications for martial artists and self-defense training. Most of our empty-handed defenses (those used when an attacker has no weapon) need to be designed to exclude all potentially dangerous techniques. That means avoiding chokes, dangerous throws, eye gouges, trachea smashers, limb snappers, head slammers, and a variety of other moves that "are likely to cause" death or great bodily harm. 

It also means modifying the techniques that you are using to be safe, professional, and legal. At the UChicago Self-Defense Club, I teach the Haganah/F.I.G.H.T curriculum. Any takedowns and throws we use to end a defense are designed to maximize safety. In all of them, students are instructed to deliberately cradle the attacker's head to avoid inflicting a devastating cranial injury on impact. Similarly, chokeholds (such as the rear-naked) are not used to incapacitate and blackout, but rather to control and restrain. 

Some techniques are harder to categorize. Jointlocks, such as an arm bar, are an excellent example of this. In many situations, even those in which you do not fear for your life, a jointlock is a great way to end a conflict and disable your attacker. But in such cases, you must ask yourself if that jointlock was the minimum level of force needed to stop the attack. For some of us, the answer will be "Yes". Smaller and shorter martial artists might be justified in using such techniques against larger and stronger attackers, especially if they are in a compromising position on the ground, pinned to a wall, held in place, and so on. For bigger martial artists, however, this becomes a risky proposition, especially if your attacker is not as skilled, strong, or large as you. If a teenager tackles you to take your laptop bag, is breaking his arm the minimum level of force needed to stop the attack? I am 6'0" weighing at 175 lbs. If a 5'8" kid with only 145 lbs tried to wrestle for my bag and I decided to break his arm, neither the cops, the prosecutor, the judge, nor the jury would find that remotely justified.

Striking is another technique that is hard to categorize (all punches, kicks, elbows, knees, etc.), and this returns to the issue of size, strength, skill, and minimum force. If a robber punches you in the face before trying to yank away your backpack, all things being equal, you can probably punch him back to protect yourself and your property. Unfortunately, all things are rarely equal. You might be an aspiring Golden Gloves boxer, and your walloping right hook might knock your target out cold and send his head spinning to the cement. Suddenly, your case goes from "justified self defense" to "involuntary manslaughter". Elbows represent another complication. A stunning elbow to the neck might be alright to disrupt and daze an attacker. Dropping an elbow to the base of an attacker's neck, however, can risk paralysis or major trauma. In both cases, you need to ask yourself whether that elbow was the minimum amount of force necessary to stop the attack (in one of those cases, it certainly is not). 

Ultimately, you need to make sure that all of your techniques and defenses use the minimum amount of force that is necessary to stop the aggressor. Because your attacker is not trying to maim or kill you, your force will always fall short of a deadly/crippling level. Be brutally honest in this assessment; you may have to toss out a number of your "favorite" techniques in the process. The examples below will help guide you in that regard. 

Defending yourself from nonlethal, unlawful force: Simple Summary
  • If someone uses unlawful and criminal force against you without threatening your life, and there are no other ways to avoid or escape, then you may use the minimum amount of force necessary to defend yourself. Once you are safe, you must stop using such force.
"GOOD" techniques that often use a minimal level of force
  • Throws in which you cradle/hold your attacker's head to lessen falling injury.
  • Pins that immobilize an attacker on the ground (rear shoulder lock, barring an arm on the ground, etc.)
  • Front kick/knees to the groin.
  • Roundhouse kick/knees to the thigh. 
  • Punches/elbows to the side of the neck (the "triangle" around the carotid artery). 
  • Palm strike to the face.
  • Stomping kick to the groin or stomach.
"RISKY" techniques that MIGHT NOT use a minimal level of force
  • Strangleholds applied for 8 seconds (rear naked choke, guillotine, headlock, triangle, etc.)
  • Stomping/side kick to the knee joint. 
  • Punch to the jaw.
  • Takedowns in which you do not control the opponent's head (tackles, single leg, double leg, ankle picks, etc.). Takedowns are generally "safer" than throws because you are controlling their lower body and they can more easily break a fall.
  • Fast jointlocks (arm bar, figure four, knee bar, etc.)
 "DANGEROUS" techniques that DO NOT use a minimal level of force
  • Strangleholds applied for longer than 8 seconds. 
  • Kicking or kneeing the head of a downed opponent. 
  • Slamming the head of an opponent into the ground, a wall, a corner, or any other hard surface. 
  • Repeatedly punching an opponent's head. 
  • Dropping the tip of your elbow into an opponent's neck or head. 
  • Eye gouges. 
  • Throws in which you do not control the opponent's head (hip throw, shoulder throw, major outer reap, etc.).
  • Any slash, stab, or cut with a bladed, edged, or sharp implement. 
  • Any clubbing or bludgeoning instrument. 
  • Shooting someone anywhere (whether leg, arm, torso, or head).
Nonlethal, unlawful use of force scenarios
  • A thief grabs your iPhone and runs. 
  • A thief strikes you in the face and tries to grab your iPhone or bag. 
  • A pair of thieves grab you while they make off with your backpack. 
  • An attacker, without provocation, punches you at a party. 
  • While riding the train, a man tries to inappropriately touch you. 
  • As you walk down the street, a 14 year-old kid slaps you in the face.
As a final note, it is critical to remember that simple deescalation tactics are often viable in many nonlethal force situations. If a man were to simply shove you at a party, you need not immediately escalate to a restraint and takedown. Walking away or talking the guy down are still options at your disposal, and it is very possible that an immediate and unwarranted escalation to use-of-force will be counted against you by prosecutors and police. Of course, talking down a guy whose hand is already on your iPod as he wrenches it away is not really an effective self-defense strategy. Just be judicious in knowing when to use force and when to deescalate or walk away, a point that returns us to basic self-defense training in the first place.

Join me next time for part 4 where I talk about defending another person from nonlethal force.

No comments :

Post a Comment