OpenJurist

What are defenses to crimes?

There are several defenses that can be raised in a criminal case. The defenses listed here are a sampling of those that can be raised.

Insanity
One of the more newsworthy defenses is that of insanity. Different states have adopted different rules as to how insanity is to be determined. Some states adopt a simple test known as the M'Naghten rule, which is simply a determination of whether the perpetrator was able to distinguish right from wrong. Other states adopt the irre­sistible impulse test that may apply when a defendant knew he or she was doing wrong, but the status of his or her mind prevented him or her from controlling his or her conduct he or she was overtaken by an irresistible impulse to engage in that behavior. The District of Columbia adopted the Durham test several years ago. It provides that an accused is not criminally responsible if his or her unlawful act was the product of mental disease or mental defect. These types of insanity defenses are generally the subject of a good deal of controversy and normally involve expert testimony from psychiatrists or other mental health professionals.

Intoxication
Another defense that can be raised is intoxication. If a crime requires specific intent, then a person who is intoxicated may be incapable of forming that specific intent.

Coercion
Coercion arises when there is duress. The bank teller who turns over the bank's money to the robber is acting under duress and therefore is not guilty of larceny in removing the money from the drawer. He or she is coerced in releasing the money.

Necessity
A woman who is threatened with sexual assault, and who then breaks down a neighbor's front door to seek refuge is not guilty of burglary because her conduct is governed by the defense of necessity. She needed to find safety.

Entrapment
Entrapment is a much more difficult defense, The purpose of the entrapment defense is to prevent the govern­ment from manufacturing a crime. An undercover police officer who offers to purchase narcotics from someone who he or she believes to be a pusher is not guilty of entrapment. However, an undercover police officer who applies immense pressure to a suspect to sell him or her narcotics by establishing a friendship with him or her and then playing on that friendship to overcome that person's unwillingness to sell narcotics probably would be guilty of entrapment.

Vagueness
Another defense that may be raised to some criminal violations is that of vagueness. The U.S. Constitution precludes punishing a person under a statute that is too vague to be understood. A statute should be sufficiently clear that a reasonable person could determine what conduct is forbidden, and the statute should be sufficiently clear as to prevent arbitrary enforcement by the police. Loitering statutes over the years have been subject to tests for vagueness. For example, if they preclude any person from being on a public street at any time, then they may be subject to constitutional challenges for vagueness.

Self-Defense
The ultimate defense to a crime against a person is self-defense. As a general rule, a person may use whatever force is reasonably necessary to prevent immediate and unlawful harm to him or herself. Some jurisdictions have adopted the retreat rule that requires a person who can safely retreat to do so before using deadly force. In general, the defense of self·defense permits a person to employ reasonable, non-deadly force to resist an unlawful arrest. However, as a practical matter, resisting an unlawful arrest is a risky maneuver because it could result in worse physical harm to the accused.

Protection of Property
A related defense in property crimes is protection of property. As a general rule, a person can use whatever force, short of deadly force, that reasonably appears to be necessary to protect property.

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