A Martial Artists’ Guide to Self-Defense and Defense of Others in Louisiana

I believe it is highly beneficial to study and practice martial arts. It is good for the mind, spirit and body. It requires discipline, dedication and hard work. My journey in martial arts began with learning Taekwondo, earning a blackbelt in 1989. Decades later, I began learning Seven Star Praying Mantis Kung Fu under Sifu James Mclin of Legendary Kung Fu and Tai Chi. The style of Seven Star Praying Mantis is an extremely effective and destructive form of Kung Fu. While learning a martial art is intended as a positive benefit, that knowledge could be negatively construed when it comes to self-defense or the defense of others.

Anyone with working knowledge of any martial art (e.g., kung fu, karate, jiu-jitsu, boxing etc.) is subject to a negative perception in a situation of self-defense or defense of others. The negative perception is caused by the manner which the police, judges, or prosecutors will measure your response to a potentially life-threatening encounter. When you are a would-be victim of an attack, the authorities may be of the opinion you should have applied “just enough” skill to fend off the assailant. Should your actions in the context of self-defense exceed this notion of “just enough” to repel the aggression, the authorities might suggest you took matters too far. Some may even suggest you were showing off or “hot dogging” your skills.

The first hurdle in a self-defense case is colorable proof you were not the initial aggressor and were put in the position of having to defend yourself or a loved one (called defense of others). Keep in mind, the aggressor usually plays the “victim card” after someone successfully overcomes his aggression. When this happens, the case turns on your word against the aggressor’s word.
When there is a police investigation into a fight, the police investigation will focus on you and your actions. When this happens, the concept of self-defense is rarely (if ever) the issue. Rather, the facts, evidence and opinions of the police that will drive the case and establish whether there was an initial aggressor and someone simply defending himself. Keep in mind, defending yourself is a defense under the law (not to an arrest). The police determine the facts and will only excuse your actions if they are clearly convinced of a showing of self-defense or defense of others. Keep in mind, some police do not get bogged down with legal issues like self-defense. These types of police officers arrest everyone involved and expect the courts to sort out the legal defenses. When this occurs, the police are simply avoiding the hard work of an actual investigation and passing the buck to the courts. To err on the side of caution, the martial artist should expect to independently prove up a self-defense or defense of others situation and not presume the police will do it for him or her. This guide is intended to assist you with learning your legal rights and responsivities when facing a self-defense or defense of others encounter.

Many martial artists and schools offering instruction in martial arts speak of self-defense, and do not know the legal definitions of it. What is self-defense under Louisiana law? Louisiana law defines “self-defense” in La. R.S. 14:19 (use of force or violence in defense) as:
(1) The use of force or violence upon the person of another is justifiable under either of the following circumstances:
(a) When committed for the purpose of preventing a forcible offense against the person or a forcible offense or trespass against property in a person’s lawful possession, provided that the force or violence used must be reasonable and apparently necessary to prevent such offense.
(i) When committed by a person lawfully inside a dwelling, a place of business, or a motor vehicle as defined in R.S. 32:1 (40) when the conflict began, against a person who is attempting to make an unlawful entry into the dwelling, place of business, or motor vehicle, or who has made an unlawful entry into the dwelling, place of business, or motor vehicle, and the person using the force or violence reasonably believes that the use of force or violence is necessary to prevent the entry or to compel the intruder to leave the dwelling, place of business, or motor vehicle.
(ii) The provisions of this Paragraph shall not apply when the person using the force or violence is engaged, at the time of the use of force or violence in the acquisition of, the distribution of, or possession of, with intent to distribute a controlled dangerous substance in violation of the provisions of the Uniform Controlled Dangerous Substances Law.
(2) The provisions of Paragraph (1) of this Section shall not apply where the force or violence results in a homicide.
B. For the purposes of this Section, there shall be a presumption that a person lawfully inside a dwelling, place of business, or motor vehicle held a reasonable belief that the use of force or violence was necessary to prevent unlawful entry thereto, or to compel an unlawful intruder to leave the premises or motor vehicle, if both of the following occur:
(1) The person against whom the force or violence was used was in the process of unlawfully and forcibly entering or had unlawfully and forcibly entered the dwelling, place of business, or motor vehicle.
(2) The person who used force or violence knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry was occurring or had occurred.
C. A person who is not engaged in unlawful activity and who is in a place where he or she has a right to be shall have no duty to retreat before using force or violence as provided for in this Section and may stand his or her ground and meet force with force.
D. No finder of fact shall be permitted to consider the possibility of retreat as a factor in determining whether or not the person who used force or violence in defense of his person or property had a reasonable belief that force or violence was reasonable and apparently necessary to prevent a forcible offense or to prevent the unlawful entry.

What is defense of others under Louisiana law? Louisiana defines “defense of others” in La. R.S. 14:22 as:
It is justifiable to use force or violence or to kill in the defense of another person when it is reasonably apparent that the person attacked could have justifiably used such means himself, and when it is reasonably believed that such intervention is necessary to protect the other person.

Notice that neither self-defense nor defense of others law requires you to retreat. However, while standing your ground may be legally permissible in Louisiana, discretion is the better part of valor. This means it is better to avoid a dangerous situation than to confront it. Why? Because it will take an incredible number of resources (financially and personally) to legally justify your actions in a court of law (criminal court and civil court). It costs next to nothing to avoid an unnecessary confrontation. This assumes the option of having a choice and that is not always possible in a self-defense situation.

Having read the blackletter law on self-defense and defense of others, you should be aware of another legal concept in Louisiana law, which is found in La. R.S. 14: 21 (Aggressor cannot claim self-defense). It provides:

A person who is the aggressor or who brings on a difficulty cannot claim the right of self-defense unless he withdraws from the conflict in good faith and in such a manner that his adversary knows or should know that he desires to withdraw and discontinue the conflict.

What is important about this particular law is it allows the aggressor to “withdraw” from the conflict. The act of withdrawal does not need to be verbal. The act of withdrawing will vary from person to person and situation to situation. It gives the aggressor an out or, at least, a justification to pursue criminal charges and/or a civil lawsuit against you. It also makes it tricky for those put in the situation of having to defend himself or others to know when to pull the punches. Let’s face it-none of us have been in a fight where the other says, “I give up.”

In light of the foregoing, what should you keep in mind before you have to defend yourself or others? Be certain the threat is an actual one of bodily harm and not some minimal or non-existent threat. To be sure, ask yourself, “how could I have misinterpreted this as a threat?” and “is any aspect of this threat subjective?” If there is a reasonable basis to conclude there is an actual threat, try to avoid the confrontation. If that is not an option, try using your words to deescalate the encounter. If talking fails or there is not sufficient time to deescalate and you are compelled to employ your martial arts skills, then use the force needed to repel the aggression. Please note this is not the same as entirely neutralizing the aggressor or threat. For example, if an attacker is repelled by anything less than broken bones, dismemberment or death, then there is no need to do so. However, in the throes of an attack, it is understandable the precise line of force is blurred. Along these lines, you can rest assure the original aggressor will almost always claim you crossed the line no matter how merciful your self-imposed limitations. (Bullies are usually the first to cry about an effective response).
If you are being pursued by an assailant, who is advancing in an aggressive way, scream or yell that you wish to be left alone and for someone to call the police because you are in fear for your life. Hopefully this will get the attention of any bystanders/witnesses, who will call the police and see you are the victim of aggression. Ask onlookers to record a video of the aggressor or record him/her on your smartphone. If there are no others around, you can direct your smartphone to call the police or 911. Tell the authorities you are in fear for your life and identify or describe the aggressor. Consider yelling “fire” to get attention from people who may not be present. Hopefully this will cause the aggressor to come to his senses. If he does not stop his aggression, you have created the conditions where the aggressor’s actions will shore up your self-defense claim.

Your response with force must be reasonable. It must be an amount of force reasonably necessary to defend yourself or others. Should you cross the line of what is reasonable, the assailant and the police may claim your actions were excessive. This will be a way for an assailant to become a “victim.” Keep in mind, the police and courts will examine every aspect of your actions in self-defense with an eye looking for anything that may be deemed excessive.

If during your defense, the aggressor is knocked unconscious or otherwise disabled, if you leave him unattended and his condition takes a turn for the worse, such as death, the issue moves from self-defense to something much worse, like murder or attempted murder. If you are in this impossible situation, consider calling 911 from the aggressor’s cellphone to report his condition and location. Leave the cellphone near or on the person because many 911 centers can locate a cellphone. You are not required to disclose your name or leave any identifying features (i.e., fingerprints, phone number etc.) with the 911 operator or at the scene. Perhaps you could remain in the distant vicinity to make sure emergency services arrives to tend to this person. Next, thing you should do is contact an experienced criminal defense attorney and do not discuss those events with anyone else.
Even if you are successful in defending yourself, this endeavor is not likely over. Should the police become involved, and you cannot avoid that interaction, you will continue to defend yourself, but not with anything you learned in martial arts. This defense is one that requires the exclusive use of your mind, which is your greatest weapon. If you become part of a police encounter after a fight, employ breathing exercises and calm down. You may still experience the effects of adrenaline and the “fight or flight” response, and this will not be helpful during the police encounter. Despite the surge of these involuntary physiological responses, the police will interpret those responses as suspicious or nervousness. So, try to calm down. No one can fault you for needing to “take a few minutes” to calm down.

At this point, almost all criminal defense attorneys will advise you not to speak to the police or answer any of their questions. This is certainly my recommendation. However, if you do not explain how you were attacked, the police have very few options on how to proceed and it will be highly likely that you will be arrested (keep in mind the police do not have the final decision regarding a criminal conviction). In that moment, hopefully there will be witnesses who can explain what happed and how you were attacked. The police can gather information from the witnesses without having your statement. If not, while an arrest is almost certain to follow, it is advisable that you request to speak to an attorney, which is your constitutional right. After you consult an attorney, the two of you can decide if a statement is necessary.

I suspect some of you may feel you can explain your way out of this situation, but it almost never works. If you try to explain your actions to the police (something I do not recommend), do not say anything about martial arts training or refer to any of the techniques (by name or description) used during the attack as doing so will reveal your martial arts training and knowledge. Limit the discussion to what the aggressor did and how you felt you and/or your loved one was/were in fear of loss of life. Your reaction to this perceived threat is not important as the threat itself. Keep in mind, anything you tell the police will limit your options at any subsequent proceedings. Also, it is not what you say, but what the police report what you said. These are often two different concepts.

Of course, life would be better if there were not any bullies in the world. But, as we know, bullies are not only found on the schoolyard. They are everywhere. When these bullies try to pick a fight, it is best to avoid the confrontation. If you do not have that option, call attention to the bully so you can have the evidence needed to defend yourself in court. Keep in mind, a bully is usually motivated by a fragile ego. When you best a bully, he will be the first to run to the police in an effort to get the last lick in. Martial arts training will not be of any use with the police investigation. If you are in the situation, obtain help from a criminal defense attorney to fight for you.