Criminal Defenses > Self-Defense in Minnesota

Self-defense of self, others or property, is an example of an affirmative defense.  The right to self-defense is a basic human right that has been recognized from ancient times, and recognized in the laws on self-defense.

It was acknowledged at Common Law and has been incorporated into the Minnesota self-defense statuteMinnesota Statutes Section 609.06.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example.

Johnny Apple drives to the store to buy some items.  In the parking lot, a man he does not know begins to yell at him about money he supposedly owes the man.  Then the man proceeds to brutally assault Johnny, during which Johnny notices he is attempting to pull out a knife.  Fearing for his life, Johnny breaks the man’s neck which kills him.  The government charges (makes the claim of) criminal murder.  At the trial, Johnny’s Minnesota defense lawyer questions witnesses who testify about what they saw and heard of the brief assault.  The jury was convinced that it was not a murder to prevent collection of a debt, but a killing in self-defense because the “force” used by Johnny was “reasonable” under the circumstances of the attempted robbery. “Not guilty.”

In Minnesota, a person acts in self-defense if he or she reasonably believes force is necessary and uses only the level of force reasonably necessary to prevent the bodily harm feared.  State v. Glowacki, 630 N.W.2d 392, 399 (Minn. 2001). The right to self-defense is codified at Minn. Stat. § 609.06, subd. 1(3). It provides that reasonable force may be used upon another without the other’s consent “when used by any person in resisting or aiding another to resist an offense against the person….” Minn.Stat. § 609.06, subd. 1(3).

Minn. Stat. § 609.06, subd. 1(3), includes four elements:

(1) the absence of aggression or provocation on the part of the defendant;
(2) the defendant’s actual and honest belief that he or she was in imminent danger of … bodily harm;
(3) the existence of reasonable grounds for that belief; and
(4) the absence of a reasonable possibility of retreat to avoid the danger.

State v. Basting, 572 N.W.2d 281, 285-86 (Minn.1997). Once a defendant meets the burden of “going forward with evidence to support a claim of self-defense,” the State bears the burden to disprove, beyond a reasonable doubt, one or more of the four elements.

Outside the home, Minnesota’s self-defense law contains a “duty to retreat” provision.  A person facing a threat has a duty to retreat where practical, before responding with “reasonable force.”  If an attack is sudden retreat might be unrealistic or create a risk of bodily harm.  In order to protect you, your loved ones, or your property, in some situations there may be no reasonable alternative to the use of reasonable force in self-defense.

What is “reasonable force?”  There must be thousands of court cases discussing this, in various situations.  The idea is that the level of force used in self-defense should be commensurate with the perceived threat level at the time.

Police are trained to shoot the center of the body when shooting in self-defense, and to shoot a person armed with a knife within striking distance.  That could be reasonable force.  No one wants to end up in a case where a jury has to decide “was it reasonable?” given the threat presented at the time.  If you are defending yourself or others from a violent attack, however, even deadly force can be reasonable.

No duty to retreat in the home — Castle Doctrine

Under Minnesota’s current general rule, the law requires that a person retreat if reasonably possible before acting in self-defense. Glowacki, 630 N.W.2d at 399. The law presumes that there is somewhere safer to go than home.  If a person is outside his or her home and can safely retreat, then the person’s use of force is unreasonable under that law.

The exception is under the so-called “castle doctrine:” a person need not retreat from his or her home before acting in self-defense. State v. Johnson, 719 N.W.2d 619, 622, 629 (Minn.2006)  The home is “a place critical for the protection of the family.” State v. Carothers, 594 N.W.2d 897, 900 (Minn.1999).  One’s home is a sanctuary.  “Requiring retreat from the home before acting in self-defense would require one to leave one’s safest place.” Glowacki, 630 N.W.2d at 401.

Some cases involve the courts defining the boundaries of the home, where the legal duty to retreat does not apply, for example the hallway of one’s apartment.  State v. Devens, 852 N.W.2d 255 (Minn. 2014).