Recent events in Kenosha, Wis., have led to a lot of public discussion about self-defense. Cases involving self-defense, particularly when deadly force is used, tend to be very fact-specific, and the laws vary considerably state to state. I will not make any predictions about the result of the case in Kenosha. But here are some things to know about how the defense operates in Minnesota.
The intentional taking of human life is authorized only when necessary to resist or prevent an offense where the person reasonably believes they could suffer death or great bodily harm, or to prevent the commission of a felony in the person’s home. “Reasonable belief” is an objective standard, meaning it is not what the person using the force might have actually believed at the time, but rather what a reasonable person in the same circumstances would believe. A person who uses deadly force because they honestly believe another person was a Terminator from the future sent to kill them is going to have trouble asserting the defense because a reasonable person would not believe that. “Great bodily harm” is defined as an injury with a high probability of death, permanent disfigurement, or other serious injury. The threat of small cuts, bruises, or a bloody nose would likely not justify deadly force. A threat with a dangerous weapon or the To use the defense at trial, a defendant has to provide advance notice of a claim of self-defense. Once the issue is raised by the evidence, the burden is then on the State to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense. That question is ultimately decided by the jury.
In Minnesota, the person also has the duty to act honestly and in good faith. This includes a duty to retreat or avoid the danger, if this is reasonably possible. Minnesota is not one of the 35 so-called “stand your ground” states, where there is no duty to retreat. The only exception to this, often called the “castle doctrine,” is when the person is in their own home and must act to prevent the commission of a felony. Again, however, the defendant’s judgment as to the seriousness of the threat must be reasonable in light of the perceived danger, and the actions must still be in good faith. Other states make similar exceptions for vehicles and/or the workplace, but Minnesota currently does not.
Finally, it is important to know that law enforcement officers are covered by a different statute, and they have greater powers to use deadly force in the performance of their job duties. This statute (Minn. Stat. § 609.066) was recently amended by the Legislature in response to the death of George Floyd, and those changes will become effective on March 1, 2021. These changes include a mandate to use “special care” when interacting with persons suffering from mental health or developmental disabilities, and specifically adds the same sort of “reasonable person” standard applicable to the public.