Step Five—State Laws
We have given you the general principles that determine the justifiable use of lethal force, but to know exactly how they’re applied in your state—which at the very least may have exceptions, additional clauses, or different wordings—you’ll need to research its specific statutes. There are a few ways to go about this:
Information on about everything can be found online, and state law is no exception. There are two routes to this.
The easiest method is to find the criminal jury instructions for your state. These can often be located online, either all together or divided by subject; you’ll want the section on murder or assault, nearby which should be comments on justifications, including self-defense. This is the material that is read to the jury in a trial involving such issues, and as such is generally both very accurate to the law, and quite clear for the layman. In a direct sense, this is more or less how you’ll be judged, should you end up in court. Not every state makes these easily available online, though diligent research (via LexisNexis or Google) should turn it up most of the time.
The harder, but more comprehensive method, is to find the actual text of your state’s criminal statutes. Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute maintains a web page that lists links to the statutes for 49 of the 50 states. This resource makes it easy to find the appropriate legal texts for your own state, and you can dig through it to the appropriate sections on justifications. Unfortunately, most of these statute archives are not particularly easy to use; you may have trouble nailing down the specific sections you’re looking for.
A good resource for researching weapon possession, so-called “carry” laws, and other pertinent legal matters is HandgunLaw.us. You can pull up the page for your state and read detailed breakdowns of exactly what items you may carry in your state and how they may be carried.
In addition, Google (or your favorite search engine) may yield other unofficial Web pages (rather like this one) that give relevant discussions or information. Beware of biased or inaccurate material, though; lots of inaccurate material is available on this subject. Use common sense and what you’ve learned here to test for accuracy. Finally, any Internet pundit who doesn’t provide his sources is to be doubted.
The State Attorney General’s Office
The office of the Attorney General for your state is the guiding force for all state legal matters. A quick search online should yield its Web site, which should include contact information; give them a call and staff attorneys should be able to answer your questions.
The advantage of taking this route is that you’re going straight to the source; other than District Attorneys, perhaps, there probably isn’t anyone who’s more “in the know” about your state’s laws than the Attorney General. The disadvantage, however, is that you may find yourself talking to a low-level clerk or public relations officer who isn’t really much better informed than you are. As always, be wary, and if you suspect you’re getting inaccurate information, ask to speak with someone else.
At the end of the day, few sources are as useful as a good criminal defense attorney who specializes in this field of law. Even if you never have to make that 1:00 AM call asking him to come down to the police station, your attorney can still be extremely valuable as a source of information; he will surely know things about the laws in your state that you’ll never find on your own.
Talk to him! It’s worth the money, and if you get the information you need, you’ll only have to do it once. Listen carefully, take notes, and use the information from this site to help you ask the right questions.