Nearly four years ago, a Chicago police officer shot a teenager 16 times from 10 feet away. The teen had been behaving erratically while walking down the street, and at the time of the shooting was holding a folding knife with a three-inch blade. He did not obey police commands to drop the weapon, and then was shot.
The Chicago Police initially ruled the shooting justified. However, dashcam footage released 13 months later revealed that the teen was walking away from the police at the time of the shooting. Further, the knife he was carrying was closed when he was shot.
The officer responsible has since been charged with six counts of first-degree murder, and will soon go to trial. In order to find the officer guilty of murder, the prosecution must prove that he acted “without lawful justification” – that the use of deadly force was not justified.
According to Illinois law, a police officer is justified in using deadly force when it is “necessary to prevent the arrest from being defeated by resistance or escape” when the person “has committed or attempted a forcible felony which involves infliction or threatened infliction of great bodily harm” or is “attempting to escape by use of a deadly weapon.”
The officer’s defense team argues that both of the above were applicable, as the teen had just committed a burglary at a nearby truck depot, and was using the knife in an attempt to evade arrest. The prosecution, however, contends that the officer had no knowledge of the burglary at the time of the shooting, and that the teen was not using the knife to evade arrest.
It is difficult to know how this high-profile case will play out, but what about the rest of us? What rights do we have as citizens to defend ourselves and our property? Where does Illinois draw the line between self-defense and assault?
How the Law in Illinois Defines Self-Defense
Preservation of life and evasion of bodily harm is a primal instinct, and it is what a reasonable person would do under threat of death or bodily harm.
Self-defense laws are intended to give us the right to protect ourselves from injury or death by using some degree of force. Generally speaking, self-defense refers to defending yourself, and also to defending your property and other persons in threat of death or bodily harm.
However, self-defense laws also state that use of force is only justifiable under certain circumstances, and that the amount of force used in self-defense must be reasonable. For example, use of force to defend oneself is only justifiable if retreat from the situation is not possible. Further, the amount of force used must be proportional to the threat or perceived threat of your alleged attacker. If the use of force is not justified, this is considered assault.
Closely related is the use of force to protect a dwelling or property. Under Illinois’ “Castle Doctrine” you are not required to retreat from danger before using force against an attacker. However, you are only justified in using force if you reasonably believe that it is necessary to prevent bodily harm or the commission of a felony by the intruder.
When Illinois Defendants Plead Self-Defense
Self-defense is one of the most common defenses for Chicago assault charges. In many cases self-defense is applicable to assault charges, but for your defense to hold up in court, certain elements must be present.
Use of Force to Defend Against Bodily Harm
Under Illinois criminal code 720 ILCS 5, you are allowed to use force against another person when you (or a reasonable person) believe that such force is necessary to defend yourself or someone else from impending violence or bodily harm.
However, you are only allowed to use deadly force or force that may inflict great bodily harm when you reasonably believe that this degree of force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to yourself or another, or the forcible commission of a felony.
Use of Force to Protect a Dwelling or Property
It is also lawful to use physical force to protect your home or property. However, you are only legally allowed to use force to protect your home under the following circumstances:
- The intruder entered your home illegally, and you believe that the use of force is necessary to prevent an assault; or
- You believe that force is necessary to prevent the intruder from committing a felony within your home.
As a citizen, you have a right to protect yourself against threats to your safety or property. However, it’s important to be aware of how exactly Illinois defines self-defense, so that you react appropriately if you’re ever involved in a situation where self-defense is necessary.
About the Author:
Andrew M. Weisberg is a former felony prosecutor who now serves as a defense attorney in the greater Chicago area. He has extensive experience in handling all types of criminal cases, from sex offenses and domestic violence to retail theft-related crimes, murder, and drug crimes.