Updated: Aug 27, 2018
Let’s start with a quick quiz: Which of the following could result in your arrest?
A) A foot stomp to the face of a downed opponent as a cool finishing technique
B) Getting pushed and responding by breaking the person’s arm
C) Responding to verbal abuse with a kick to the knee
D) All of the above
The answer is D, all of the above. Let’s take a deeper look.
In our system, after you pass your 1st degree black belt test, the very next class for you is physically easy. Really? Really! In fact, you don’t do any physical activity. You might think that you’re getting a small break, after having just exhausted yourself in an extremely long, grueling test that took you to your physical, mental, and emotional limits, and you’d be right. But that’s only part of the reason. The other part is that the first class after your test is dedicated to understanding state laws and the US Constitution regarding self-defense and the use of force. You’re given a copy of the state laws (in New Hampshire, this is section 627 of the criminal code) and the entire class is spent on reviewing and understanding the law. All students are taught in the use of appropriate force through their color belt advancement, but at 1st degree black belt, you receive this additional training. As a 1st degree black belt, you become an Assistant Instructor and will be working with, leading, and teaching other students and you will be representing the school and becoming part of the leadership, so it’s appropriate that you understand the law in more depth. But there are some key points that I wanted to share with everyone as part of our collective teaching on the use of force and what’s appropriate and when.
The Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and at least 21 state constitutions have similar language around the right to personal liberty and welfare. The right to defend oneself, loved ones, and property predates our government — it comes from God — and therefore cannot be taken away. This is what is meant by the phrase “inalienable rights." Each of us has a right to protect ourselves—to life and liberty. That’s the foundation for everything else. However, being a civil, lawful society where our justice system tries to treat each of us fairly, that also means there are certain limits. This means that the force you use in defending yourself must be reasonable and appropriate as judged by a reasonable jury of your peers.
That foot stomp to the face of a downed opponent? — would a reasonable person believe that you used an appropriate level of force to stop the guy from harming you, or would they think that you went too far because he was down on the ground and no longer a threat? Could you have safely retreated or walked away? You’d probably be in some trouble if you could have safely gotten away but chose to stay for one last foot stomp. And if the guy is seriously injured by your actions, it could get even worse. You’re responsible for the outcomes of your actions.
Here’s another factor: The amount of force you use must be appropriate to the situation and the perceived threat.
The way you reasonably perceive a threat is important. A guy with a knife or baseball bat coming at you is holding a deadly weapon, and deadly force is justified. If a guy is 300 pounds with fists the size of your last family Easter ham is pummeling the tar out of a police officer in his car while trying to get his gun, deadly force is justified by that officer. If a person breaks into your house at night with a weapon, deadly force is justified. Why? Because in each of these cases, a reasonable person would believe that the threat was imminent and potentially deadly. But what about non-deadly threats? What if the guy you just foot stomped in the face simply wouldn’t stop trying to hurt you and kept on coming at you? In that instance, you can continue to use a level of force appropriate to stop the threat. But no more. Remember, the law tries to be fair to both parties, so if the guy is down and clearly no longer a threat, continuing to stomp on him can bring your actions into question and possibly place you in legal trouble. I’m not a lawyer, and state laws vary, so please check with a legal expert for more detail, but these are some of the fundamentals we teach on the use of force.
The basic idea is that you have a right to protect yourself, but the level of force used must be appropriate to the situation and the perceived threat. And remember, if you can safely get away without having to resort to fighting or violence at all, that’s the best approach. Having to fight means you’ve run out of options, and sometimes that just happens. But many times potentially bad situations can be avoided, and that’s a good thing. Talk to an instructor if you have questions. We like questions! :)