Step Three—Civil Law

Martin Cooper explains self defense as a four-part challenge, where only a victory on all four constitutes a true win:

  1. You must be able to perform
  2. You must defeat your opponent
  3. You must be cleared of all criminal charges
  4. You must be cleared of all civil charges

Civil law is a world apart from criminal law, and just as complicated. Why is it relevant here? Because it is vital to realize that even after surviving the confrontation and winning the criminal case (or avoiding prosecution altogether), you may still face a civil lawsuit, and should expect to.

The good news is that the tenets of civil prosecution generally parallel those of criminal law in matters of self defense. If you were wholly justified in your actions, you should have a sound defense against your attacker suing you, and indeed, may have a case to sue him.

However, the standards and the burden of proof are different in a civil court, so the issue is more complex. Although a criminal charge must be proven beyond a “reasonable doubt,” a civil charge must only be proven by a “preponderance” of the evidence—in other words, the criminal charge needs to be a very strong case, whereas the civil one simply needs to be stronger than yours. It’s entirely possible to come out clean in the criminal case, yet still have to pay fines in civil court, if your actions merely seemed inappropriate, yet couldn’t be proven so beyond a reasonable doubt. And in the litigation-happy US, if you’re brought up on a criminal charge involving use of force, you might as well assume that you’ll be sued as well. This is yet another reason to use as much restraint as safely possible.