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Webmaster's Notes: The author of this article is Jamie Stalcup, a Pennsylvania police officer and a martial arts practitioner since 1984. Jamie has been training Baguazhang since 1992, first directly with Park Bok Nam and more recently with me on a regular basis. In the time I've been able to know Jamie, he impresses me as a man who takes both his job as a police officer and his Bagua training seriously. I hope you can read this and reflect on some of the issues that it brings up in relation to self defense and legal issues. Enjoy!


Legal and Mental Preparation for Self Defense

By Jamie Stalcup

This article will introduce the general legal requirements necessary for a justified act of self-defense as listed in the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes. It will also examine the three elements common to every crime. Suggestions for body language as a pre-conflict crime deterrent and mental preparedness will be addressed as well.

Please note that some words or phrases have been highlighted for special attention. This is to make it clear that usually multiple conditions must exist for a justifiable use of force. Also, be aware that should you be involved in a use of force situation and it is proven you acted in a manner which was negligent or reckless, a claim of self-defense will be unfounded. This could make you the defendant in a criminal and/or civil trial. Remember the statutes discussed are applicable only to Pennsylvania although there will be great similarities throughout the states.

Definitions for reference:

  • Dwelling - Any building or structure though temporary or movable, or a portion thereof, which is for the time being the home or place of lodging.

  • Deadly Force - Force that, under the circumstances in which it is used, is readily capable of causing death or serious bodily injury.

  • Serious Bodily Injury - Bodily injury which creates a substantial risk of death or which causes serious, permanent disfigurement or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily organ or member.

The Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes Title 18 Sections 505, 506, and 507 provide the guidelines for self-defense in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Section 505, use of force in self-protection, states, "The use of force toward or upon another person is justifiable when the you believe that such force is immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting yourself against the use of unlawful force by such other person on the present occasion." Section 505 continues stating that use of force is not justifiable to resist an arrest being made by a peace officer, although the arrest is unlawful . The use of deadly force is not justifiable unless you believe that such force is necessary to protect yourself against death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping or sexual intercourse compelled by force or threat. The use of deadly force is not justifiable if you know that you can avoid the necessity of using such force with complete safety by retreating. However, you are not obliged to retreat from your dwelling or your place of work, unless you were the initial aggressor or are assailed in your place of work by another person whose place of work you know it to be.

Section 506, use of force for the protection of other persons, states, "The use of force upon or toward the person of another is justifiable to protect a third person when: you would be justified under section 505 in using such force to protect yourself against the injury you believe to be threatened to the person whom you seek to protect. Also, under the circumstances as you believe them to be, the person whom you seek to protect would be justified in using such protective force. When you would be obliged under section 505 to retreat, you are not obliged to do so before using force for the protection of another person, unless you know that you can thereby secure the complete safety of such other person. When in the dwelling or place of work of the person whom you seek to protect, you are not obliged to retreat to any greater extent than if in your own dwelling or place of work.

Section 507, use of force for the protection of property, states, "The use of force upon or toward the person of another is justifiable when you believe that such force is immediately necessary: to prevent or terminate an unlawful entry or other trespass upon land or a trespass against or the unlawful carrying away of tangible movable property, if such land or movable property is, or is believed to be, in his possession or in the possession of another person for whose protection you act.

Also, use of force is justifiable to effect an entry or reentry upon land or to retake tangible movable property when you believe you were unlawfully dispossessed of such land or movable property and are entitled to its possession and the force is used immediately or on fresh pursuit after such dispossession and you believe the person against whom you use force has no right to the possession of the property. Use of force is only justifiable under this section if you request the perpetrator desist from his interference with the property unless you believe that such request would bring harm upon yourself or substantial harm upon the present condition of the property.

The use of deadly force under Section 507 is justifiable if there has been an entry made into your dwelling, and you neither believe nor have reason to believe that such entry is lawful, and you neither believe nor have reason to believe that force less than deadly would be adequate to terminate entry.

There are three components that will always be present during an attempted criminal act, whether violent or non-violent. These components are desire, ability, and opportunity. Desire can be defined as the will (sometimes "uncontrollable") of the criminal to commit the crime. Ability is simply the physical and mental capability of the criminal. Opportunity means that all of the criminal's prerequisite conditions (e.g., low light, subject who is alone and appears weak, escape route is unobstructed, etc.) have been met. The only component of the three that we can affect is opportunity. Experts in human communication claim that, by far, the majority of communication is non-verbal body language. For example, we all know that e-mail can be a difficult medium to capture the full expression of an idea in that there is no use of facial expression, body language, tone, or volume. So to the predators that are watching us, whom we never meet or possibly never even see, what are we communicating?

Some of the ways we can communicate strength through body language are:

  • Be in shape -- it will show. The predator wants an easy target.

  • Exhibit good upright posture.

  • Make eye contact with any perceived threat (as much as necessary).

  • Use an open posture when standing or sitting. Don't cross your arms or sit with your feet turned in or your hands in front of your face.

  • Keep your hands out of any pockets. Having hands in your pockets looks unprepared.

  • If a threat is perceived, position yourself tactically so you can keep him in your sights. This tells the predator you have identified him and are already dealing with him.

  • Do not talk to a companion as you walk through a parking lot. Any talking could conceal a predator's footsteps as he nears himself for a surprise attack.

And the list goes on. Clothing is also a huge element in sending signals.

Maybe these suggestions sound "over the top" or paranoid, but we must leave no stone unturned in our study of self-defense. From a distance the predator only knows the signals that you send. Examination of body language is something we must look at with great attention to detail, just as we have spent a great deal of time and effort making our body mechanics precise in any given martial movement. This is our pre-conflict defense that may deter a criminal opportunity.

If our pre-conflict defense fails and we are confronted by a criminal, we must act appropriately and decisively. To achieve this we should do both mental rehearsals and mock encounters on a regular basis. We need to believe that not every encounter must result in physical force. Don't get fixated on fighting; verbal commands or negotiations may assist us. Running is an option, too. Automatically assuming a fighting posture when we're confronted ten feet away by a menacing voice will make us look scared and unprepared.

If we are assaulted by a knife or gun wielding subject and become injured while successfully disarming him, we cannot attack the criminal if he desists in his use of force against us. Even though we may have a strong desire to do so, it would not be legally appropriate. If we find we are not thinking about appropriate and inappropriate uses of force, perhaps it is due to mental oversight in our training. Many times we think of using techniques in an "if he does that, then I'll do this" mindset. "If" can be a way of training in denial, because "if" could arguably never come. We should replace "if" with "when". "When" supercedes "if" in terms of mental preparedness. It is as though you are accepting that a confrontation will come.

In terms of acting appropriately to an encounter we must consider not only the law but our personal core belief system as well. If we carry a weapon for personal protection, we should be committed to and comfortable with the application of deadly force. In a given encounter we could be stripped of the weapon even if we never employ it. We may then have to use deadly force to protect ourselves from what used to be our weapon. We should examine our acceptance of words like death and killing against our core beliefs. If we can't ponder these words and deal with the acts in mental rehearsal, how can we expect ourselves to carry out the act against another human being or animal when necessary for our protection in the real world? Taking time to do mental preparation will allow us to examine our emotions and help to develop self-control. Self-control is extremely important and will be of great aid in reacting appropriately and decisively. We must accept that during a serious encounter, we will have to deal with an adrenaline release, an increase in heart rate, the loss of complex motor skill, tunnel vision, and possibly urination or defecation, etc. We must know ourselves thoroughly. We cannot afford to dismiss the realities or live in denial.