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Self-Defense Is a Right In New Jersey

July 13, 2020

In New Jersey, under some conditions, the law allows a person to use force upon another. The relevant law is NJSA 2C:3-4. That law exonerates a criminal defendant charged with using force (including deadly force)  to commit assault and domestic violence, and in some extreme circumstances, murder.

New Jersey law allows self-defense most commonly when someone responds to a threat by fighting back. In some cases, the law allows a person to protect another person in similar circumstances as self-defense. A person can also use force to protect a home against criminal trespass, burglary, arson, or other crime.

What the State Must Prove in Home Self-Defense Cases

Basically, the State has the burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that any force used by the defendant was not justified. In other words, the prosecution must show that the force used by a defendant against another person did not meet the requirements of the law.  For the force used by the defendant against another to be justified, there are two conditions that must be met:

  1. The victim (the person harmed by the defendant) was an intruder and was unlawfully in the defendant’s home. An intruder is not a guest or someone invited into the home. Likewise, a home (or “dwelling” as defined by the law) is any place the defendant has a legal right to use as a home or lodging.
  2. The defendant reasonably believes that use of force was the only means of self-protection. Except for deadly force, the force used in self-defense can be greater and does not have to be proportionate to what the intruder uses. 

Reasonable Belief Defined           

In defense-of-property self-defense cases, under New Jersey law, a reasonable belief that use of force was necessary exists when:

  • the defendant was in his or her own dwelling at the time of the charged offense 
  • the incident or encounter between the defendant and intruder was unexpected and compelled the defendant to act instantly
  • the defendant demanded that the intruder leave, and the intruder refused
  • the defendant reasonably believed that the intruder was about to inflict personal injury on the defendant or others in the dwelling

Note: Personal injury is defined as physical pain, or temporary disfigurement, or any impairment of a person’s physical condition.

Reasonable Belief is Different from “Honest Belief”

What the defendant might consider reasonable might be based solely on the viewpoint of the defendant. It is subjective and entirely immaterial. Reasonable belief, then, is how an ordinary reasonable person with a detached viewpoint would view the defendant’s actions. However, the judgment required only needs to be reasonable, not necessarily correct.

In other words, a reasonable belief is a belief held by anyone of ordinary prudence and intelligence, who could imagine being in the stressful predicament of the defendant.

Limitations on the Use of Force

Even if the defendant believes that self-defense is necessary, there are limitations to the use of force.  Use of force is not justified when:

  • the threat posed by the attacker was not imminent and the use of force was not immediately necessary
  • the defendant resists arrest and knows that the arrest is being made in the performance of official duties
  • the attacker uses counter-force when a dwelling occupier is resisting a home invasion

Again, the use of deadly force is never justified unless the defendant reasonably believes that it is absolutely necessary for self-protection. Likewise, use of force is not a justifiable defense when:

  • the defendant, with the intent of causing death or seriously bodily harm to another person, provoked the intruder to use the force
  • the defendant can avoid using deadly force and withdraw or surrender some demanded property with complete safety

Note: The obligation of retreat only applies if the defendant uses deadly force. If the defendant does not use deadly force, there is no legal duty to retreat. That applies regardless of the level of force the intruder uses.

Restrictions on the Use of Deadly Force

Deadly force is force the defendant uses with the intent and purpose of causing death or serious bodily harm.  Serious bodily harm would be injury that poses a substantial risk of dying or that can cause permanent bodily disfigurement. An example of deadly force would be firing a gun in the direction of another person. Merely pointing a weapon is not in itself deadly force.

Using deadly force is justified when defending against a nearly equal threat. It is not justified unless the defendant perceives that deadly force is necessary for protection against death or serious bodily harm. So, someone cannot use deadly force to just a threat of or even after an actual minor attack. Being jostled or assaulted in a crowd, slapped, are no justifications for using deadly force.

Beware of New Jersey Gun Laws

New Jersey weapons bans include assault weapons and the possession of semi-automatic rifles, sawed-off shotguns, machine guns and short-barreled fire arms. The law specifies more than 50 firearms explicitly banned by name on the New Jersey Police website. Any deadly weapons kept in the home must be legal.

A defendant who uses a prohibited weapon for self-protection will complicate the defense attorney’s efforts to prove that the self-defense was legal. Even if the self-defense claim is upheld and the defendant avoids a murder conviction, for example, possession of a prohibited firearm comes with a mandatory 5- to 10-year prison sentence in New Jersey.


Self-defense is the right of any person to defend against any unlawful force. It is also the right to defend against threats of unlawful force that is imminent and can be reasonably anticipated. A person has an absolute right to use force, including deadly force, when necessary for protection of self, another person, and one’s home.


  • The force used cannot be significantly greater than and must be proportionate to the force used against or threatened to the defendant.
  • Using deadly force is only justified when the person perceives an imminent deadly threat.
  • Unless deadly force is the threat, the defendant must take reasonable measures to safely withdraw from the scene.
  • Using an illegal deadly in New Jersey for self-defense carries a mandatory prison term.

Contact an Experienced Princeton Criminal Defense Lawyer About Your Self-Defense Charges in New Jersey

Were you arrested or charged with self-defense in New Jersey? The consequences of a conviction could be severe, leaving you with a permanent criminal record and possibly even sending you to jail. That is why you need to speak with a qualified criminal defense attorney as soon as possible about your case. The Law Offices of Anthony J. Vecchio have successfully represented clients in Woodbridge, Princeton, Freehold, Mount Laurel and throughout New Jersey. Call (732) 334-7468 or fill out the online contact form to schedule a consultation with a member of our legal team. We have an office conveniently located at 309 Fellowship Road, East Gate Center, Suite 200, Mt. Laurel, NJ 08054, as well as offices located in Freehold, Jersey City, and Princeton, NJ.

The articles on this blog are for informative purposes only and are no substitute for legal advice or an attorney-client relationship. If you are seeking legal advice, please contact our law firm directly.

Disorderly conduct consists of any improper behavior such as fighting, threats of violence, or creating a dangerous atmosphere.

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