CT 2.8 Introduction to Justification Defenses

Revised to April 23, 2010

Justification is a general defense to a crime involving the use of physical force.  The use of physical force upon another person that results in actual injury, while usually a criminal assault, is not criminal if it is permitted or justified by a provision of law or statute.  General Statutes § 53a-16.  Therefore, when one who is accused of committing an assault claims that he or she acted under a legal justification, the jury must examine the circumstances and discover whether the act was truly justified.  The court’s function in instructing the jury is to tell the jury the circumstances in which the use of physical force against another person is legally justified.


Justification is defined in General Statutes §§ 53a-17 — 53a-23.  “The statutes which enumerate the situations where the use of force is justified attempt to restate the common law.  They should be read in the light of their common-law background, and the fact that an individual section does not fully state the relevant common-law rule, with all its possible applications, exceptions or implications, should not prevent a court from reading it as incorporating the full body of common-law rules relevant thereto.”  State v. Shaw, 185 Conn. 372, 379 (1981).  Reliance on the common law is inappropriate when the statute directly addresses the question; i.e., when the statute is on point, the statutory language controls.  State v. Corchado, 188 Conn. 653, 662-63 (1982).

Burden of proof

The burden is on the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was not justified in using physical force.  General Statutes § 53a-12 (a).  “[A] defendant has no burden of persuasion for a claim of self-defense; he has only a burden of production. . . .   This burden is light, however, and may be satisfied if there is any foundation in the evidence for the defendant’s claim, no matter how weak or incredible.”  State v. Clark,  264 Conn. 723, 730-31 (2003).  Once this burden is satisfied, the defendant is entitled to the instruction as a matter of law “even where the defendant has not submitted a request to charge on a particular aspect of his defense and has not objected to its omission from the charge after the charge has been given.”  State v. Cruz, 75 Conn. App. 500, 510 (2003); State v. Bailey, 209 Conn. 322, 340 (1988).

General validity of laws and court orders allowing physical force — § 53a-17

Section 53a-17 justifies the use of physical force “when such conduct is required or authorized by a provision of law or by a judicial decree, including but not limited to (1) laws defining duties and functions of public servants, (2) laws defining duties of private citizens to assist public servants in the performance of certain of their functions, (3) laws governing the execution of legal process, (4) laws governing the military services and the conduct of war, and (5) judgments and orders of courts.”  See, e.g., Use of Physical Force by Peace Officer in Making Arrest or Preventing Escape, Instruction 2.8-6.

Justification in certain circumstances — § 53a-18

General Statutes § 53a-18 includes six circumstances in which physical force is justified.  Whenever the evidence raises justification under any of these circumstances, the jury must be charged with the permissible scope of the justifiable use of physical force.

1. Justification of Force by Persons Entrusted to Care for Minors or Incompetent Persons — § 53a-18 (1)
A parent, guardian, or other person entrusted with the care and supervision of a minor child or an incompetent person, except a person entrusted with the care and supervision of a minor for school purposes as described in General Statutes § 53a-18 (6) (see below), is legally entitled to use physical force upon such minor child or incompetent person.  To be justified, however, the person exercising this force must reasonably believe that it was necessary in order to maintain discipline or to promote the welfare of the minor or incompetent person.  This force must be reasonable, and deadly force is not permitted.  See State v. Brocuglio, 56 Conn. App. 514, 517-18, cert. denied, 252 Conn. 950 (2000) (whether the parent’s physical force on a child is reasonable is for the jury to decide); State v. Nathan J., 99 Conn. App. 713, 717 (2007) (defense is available to charge of risk of injury to minor).

The statute recognizes the common-law right of parents to punish children for their own welfare.  See State v. Leavitt, 8 Conn. App. 517, 522, cert. denied, 201 Conn. 810 (1986).  Both the common law and the statute require that the use of physical force be reasonable.  Id.  See also General Statutes § 17a-101 (parents’ right to discipline limited by child abuse statute).

The parental justification defense may be raised to a charge of risk of injury to a minor involving blatant physical abuse under the act prong of § 53-21 (a) (1).  State v. Nathan J., 294 Conn. 243, 260 (2009).  See Risk of Injury to a Minor (Act Prong), Instruction 6.11-2.

2. Justification of Force by a Correctional Official — § 53a-18 (2)
An authorized official of a correctional institution or facility is permitted to use physical force in order to maintain order and discipline, but only if that force is reasonable, and is authorized by the rules and regulations of the state department of correction.  Such force may only be used for the purpose of maintaining order and discipline, and not for retaliation or punishment.

This section is applicable not only to a charge of assault brought against a correctional officer, but to offenses related to an assault upon a correctional officer when the defendant attempts to raise self-defense.  See Interfering with an Officer, Instruction 4.3-1, and Assault of Public Safety or Emergency Medical Personnel, Instruction 4.3-3.

3. Justification of Force by Employee of Common Carrier — § 53a-18 (3)
Force may legally be used by a person responsible for the maintenance of order in a common carrier, such as a railroad, bus, airplane, taxi, etc.  Such person, or someone acting under his or her direction, may use reasonable force if he or she reasonably believes that it is necessary to maintain order.  The right of a person responsible for maintaining order in a common carrier to use reasonable force to maintain such order, is a restatement of the common-law rule.  See, e.g., Downs v. New York & New Haven R. Co., 36 Conn. 287, 291 (1869); Crocker v. New London, Willimantic, and Palmer, R.R. Co., 24 Conn. 249, 263-64 (1855) (railroad employees have the right to use reasonable force to eject passengers who fail to tender the proper fare). See also Pease v. Delaware, L. & W. R. Co., 101 N.Y. 367, 371, 5 N.E. 37 (1886) (disorderly passengers may be ejected for causing danger, discomfort or annoyance to passengers).

Even deadly force may be used, but only in cases where it is reasonably believed to be necessary to prevent death or serious physical injury.  It should be noted that although § 53a-18 uses the term “physical injury,” § 53a-19 limits the use of deadly force to the threat of deadly force or “great bodily harm,” which is broader than serious physical injury.

4. Justification of Force to Prevent Suicide — § 53a-18 (4)
A person is permitted to use force if he or she reasonably believes that another person is about to commit suicide, or to inflict serious bodily harm upon himself or herself.  Only reasonable force may be used, and the person must reasonably believe that such force is necessary to prevent the apparent suicide or serious injury.

5. Justification of Force by a Physician — § 53a-18 (5)
Force may be used by a licensed physician or psychologist, or someone acting under his or her direction.  This force must be reasonable and for the purpose of providing a recognized form of treatment that the doctor reasonably believes is necessary to promote the physical or mental health of a patient. Such force is only allowed in two situations: (1) when the patient has consented to such treatment, or if the patient is a minor or incompetent person, when the consent of the person entrusted with his care and supervision has been obtained; or (2) when the physician or psychologist has determined that a medical emergency exists. In the second situation, the doctor is permitted to use force if he or she reasonably believes that no consent can be obtained from a competent person, and that a reasonable person would provide consent in order to safeguard the welfare of the patient.

6. Justification of Force in Schools — § 53a-18 (6)
A teacher or other person entrusted with the care of a minor for school purposes may use reasonable force upon such minor in certain situations.  The teacher must reasonably believe that force is necessary to:  1) protect himself or herself or others from immediate physical injury; 2) obtain possession of a dangerous instrument or controlled substance; 3) protect property from physical damage; or 4) restrain such minor or remove such minor to another area to maintain order.

Section 53a-18 restates the common-law rule allowing the use of force by teachers or other school authorities who are placed in loco parentis.  For cases discussing the common-law rule, see Andreozzi v. Rubano, 145 Conn. 280 (1958); Calway v. Williamson, 130 Conn. 575 (1944); O’Rourke v. Walker, 102 Conn. 130 (1925) (power of school authority to use physical discipline may extend beyond school grounds and hours); Sheehan v. Sturges, 53 Conn. 481 (1885); Peck v. Smith, 41 Conn. 442 (1874). See also Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651, 97 S. Ct. 1401, 51 L. Ed. 2d 711 (1977).

Subjective-objective standard

Justification defenses are similar in that they focus on the defendant’s reasonable beliefs as to circumstances defined in the statutes and the necessity of using force.  The use in these statutes of the phrase “reasonably believes” has been interpreted by the Supreme Court as embodying a subjective-objective standard.  See State v. Saunders, 267 Conn. 363, 373 (2004);State v. Wright, 77 Conn. App. 80, 88 (2003).

“The jury must view the situation from the perspective of the defendant. Section 53a-19 (a) requires, however, that the defendant’s belief ultimately must be found to be reasonable.”  State v. DeJesus, 194 Conn. 376, 389 n.13 (1984).  “The self-defense statute, i.e., General Statutes § 53a-19 . . .  focuses on the person . . . claiming self-defense.  It focuses on what hereasonably believes under the circumstances and presents a question of fact . . . .  This statutory emphasis upon the defendant further demonstrates the function of the jury in their evaluation of the self-defense claim.”  (Emphasis in original.)  State v. Corchado, 188 Conn. 653, 663 (1982).  “The jury’s initial determination, therefore, requires the jury to assess the veracity of witnesses, often including the defendant, and to determine whether the defendant’s account of his belief . . . at the time of the confrontation is in fact credible.  This probe into the defendant’s actual state of mind clearly demonstrates the function of the jury in [its] evaluation of the self-defense claim.”  State v. Prioleau, 235 Conn. 274, 286-87 (1995).  “[T]he jury must make a further determination as to whether that belief was reasonable, from the perspective of a reasonable person in the defendant’s circumstances.”  Id., 287.

In instructing the jury on the reasonableness of the defendant’s belief, it was error to refer to “an average person of ordinary intelligence in like circumstances.”  State v. Anderson, 227 Conn. 518, 533 (1993).  “[T]here is nothing in [the subjective-objective] test that refers to a ‘person of ordinary intelligence.'”  Id.; see also State v. Cruz, 75 Conn. App. 500, 512-13 n.10 (2003).  “The defendant’s conduct must be judged ultimately against that of a reasonably prudent person.”  (Internal quotation marks omitted.)  State v. Carter, 48 Conn. App. 755, 772 (1998).

It is not required that the jury find that the victim was, in fact, using or about to use physical force against the defendant.  State v. Clark, 264 Conn. 723, 732-33 (2003).  An instruction that requires the jury to find that the victim was not using or about to use physical force is thus improper.  Id.; State v. Wortham, 80 Conn. App. 635, 644-46 (2003).

Imperfect self-defense

Connecticut does not recognize the doctrine of “imperfect self-defense,” under which an honest but unreasonably held belief is a mitigating factor that allows a defendant to be convicted of a lesser crime because although the defendant may have acted with the requisite intent, he or she is less culpable.  Connecticut’s Penal Code provides a similar treatment of extreme emotional distress as a mitigating factor.  “Under an instruction for extreme emotional disturbance, as with imperfect self-defense as applied by other jurisdictions, the defendant must be found to have intentionally caused the death of the victim before the crime can be mitigated downward to a lesser offense.”  State v. Abdalaziz, 248 Conn. 430, 440 (1999)

When a defendant attempts to raise the defense that he or she had an honest but unreasonably held belief, the proper approach is a lesser included offense.  “[I]f evidence is presented that the defendant had an honest but unreasonable belief in the need to use physical force, such evidence may be sufficient for the jury to find the defendant innocent of the greater crime for which specific intent is required, and guilty of the lesser included offense for which recklessness is required, and therefore, the jury should receive a . . . lesser included offenses instruction on that basis.”  Id., 441.