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Self-Defense: What It Is And What It Isn’t

Recently, a video went viral showing a Central Florida police officer knocking out a Fort Lauderdale hotel valet.

Police arrived and the retired officer told police that he struck the valet because he feared that the valet was going to become violent. The police did not immediately make an arrest, although upon viewing the surveillance footage the Fort Lauderdale Police have recommendation prosecution for misdemeanor battery.

It is clear upon viewing the footage that no reasonable person would believe that the valet was posing an imminent threat to the retired officer. The valet was standing calmly with his hands either by his side or in his pockets. Not once did he move, gesture, or insinuate any threatening body language. However, the retired officer insisted that he acted in self-defense.

So...what is self-defense?

Florida Statute section 776.012(1) defines non-lethal self-defense as “using or threatening to use force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force.”

So that means that a reasonable person must believe, based on the circumstances, that force was necessary.

Florida law permits a defendant to ask a court for pretrial immunity (dismissal of criminal charges) under the Stand Your Ground Law. However, if the case proceeds to trial, self-defense is a jury question.

Self-defense is based on a number of factors. Remember, for the use of non-lethal force (even lethal force), it is not necessary that the alleged victim be armed. An unarmed person is capable of inflicting great bodily harm, even deadly harm. However, the circumstances must create the well-founded belief that self-defense (force) is necessary. It’s tough to make a self-defense argument when the alleged victim has not raised their hands, lunged, or done anything physical to suggest that he or she will use force.

Words alone are seldom enough legal proof for self-defense. Words, such as threats, coupled with aggressive body language and hand gestures, can make a case for self-defense. Self-defense is not permitted simply because one feels disrespected or the alleged victim made a vile insult.

In the present case, a prosecution for battery (possibly felony battery if the alleged victim was seriously hurt) is warranted. There is nothing to suggest, from the video evidence, that the retired officer was in a situation where force was necessary. It is clear that he was the aggressor and that he struck without provocation.

Eric Matheny is a criminal defense attorney serving Miami-Dade County and Broward County.