As a criminal defense attorney, located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I am often asked about the various defenses against criminal charges. There are times when an alleged act may have some justification that may result in acquittal to the accused or the acknowledgment of diminished responsibility. Such justifications are called defenses, and most societies can name a handful of different defenses, which a person charged may raise in court when the need arises. Nonetheless, the final decision rests in the hands of the Judge, or the jury as the case may be. In this article, I will discuss some of the most common defenses against criminal charges in Pennsylvania.

What are the Most Common Defenses Against Criminal Charges in Pennsylvania?

The Defense of Necessity. The accused raises the defense of necessity when he or she claims that the alleged act was carried out due to exceptional circumstances. The accused was truly desperate and had no choice but to disobey the law.

There are, however, several requirements that must be met in order for the defendant to use necessity as a defense.

  • The defendant must reasonably believe that an actual threat exists.
  • The defendant must reasonably believe that the threat he is trying to prevent is greater than the damage that will result from his actions.
  • The threatened harm that the defendant is trying to prevent with his actions must be imminent.
  • The defendant can only use the necessity defense if there was no other, less harmful way to avoid the threatened danger.
  • The defendant will only be able to use the defense if the defendant himself was not at fault in creating the situation that made it necessary to commit his crime.

The Defense of DuressThe defense of duress is available to criminal defendants who were forced to commit a crime under threat of violence or because of the actual use of violence. In these circumstances, the courts have determined that a defendant was deprived of the free will to make a decision to commit the crime and thus should not be held legally responsible for it. The defense of duress has four elements. First, there must a threat of death or serious bodily harm. Second, that threat must be immediate or imminent. Third, the threat must create a reasonable fear in the defendant. Fourth, there must be no reasonable means for the defendant to escape the threat except by committing the crime.

  • The Threat of Harm. In order for a duress defense to be successful, the defendant must have experienced a serious threat, usually rising to at least the level of significant bodily harm. This threat, however, does not have to be directed at the defendant personally. Instead, most courts also allow the defense to be used if the threats are made against others with whom the defendant has a significant relationship, such as a spouse or child. Thus, a duress defense could arise where a defendant is told that if he does not commit the crime, his wife will be killed.

Additionally, the threat of harm may be conveyed by words or actions. For instance, the defendant may be told that he will be killed or injured unless he completes the crime, or he may have a gun placed to his head without any words being spoken. Either of these will be sufficient for purposes of duress. Most important to establishing a duress defense, however, is the requirement that the threat is immediate and imminent. This means that the criminal defendant must believe that the threat will be immediately acted on if he or she does not comply. Thus, a threat made several days before will not be sufficient for purposes of duress, nor will a threat that the defendant will be harmed in the next month, year, or sometime in the future.

  • Reasonable Fear. In order for a criminal defendant to rely on the defense of duress, it is not enough that a threat occurred. Instead, the criminal defendant must also have had a reasonable and objective fear that the threat would be acted upon. This requires that a reasonable person in similar circumstances would also have a fear of death or bodily injury. For example, if a defendant was jokingly told by his co-conspirator that he had better hold up his end of the bargain or “I’ll kill you,” this would probably not be sufficient to establish duress since the threats were objectively not genuine. Similarly, if a defendant has no reason to believe that threats will be followed through on, his or her fear would not be reasonable.
  • No Means of Escape. A duress defense will only apply if the criminal defendant had no reasonable means of escaping the situation. If the defendant could leave the scene of the crime, overcome the person threatening him or her, or otherwise avoid the situation leading to duress, courts have held that the duress defense does not apply because the defendant could have, and should have, escaped from the situation.
  • Duress and Murder. Although the defense of duress is generally applicable to a wide variety of criminal charges, a majority of states have declined to allow the duress defense to apply in homicide cases, since the criminal act itself involves the taking of a life. A few states will allow for homicide charges to be lessened when duress is established, such as by reducing murder charges to manslaughter.

Self Defense. This defense is mainly used on charges of assault or homicide. The accused claims to have assaulted or killed, the victim because the victim attacked the defendant. In cases where the accused actually killed the attacker, the court must establish that the attacker would have otherwise killed the defendant, and the defendant could not have otherwise avoided his or her own death. In any case, the attack by the accused could not have been more than what was necessary to ward off the attack of the original aggressor.

The Defense of Entrapment. The accused committed the offense out of deception by an official or authority or, in some cases, an ordinary person disguised as an official or authority. An official may have convinced or deceived the accused into thinking that what they were doing was not illegal, or was necessary for justice, science or another legitimate field.

The Defense of Double Jeopardy. A person can be tried for an offense only once, whether they were acquitted or convicted at their trial. If a person is tried for an offense in a manner which is not an appeal of the original hearing, the accused can claim double jeopardy. This includes prosecuting the same action under the name of a different charge. Similarly, a person cannot be charged with a new offense if their action was not yet illegal at the time it was carried out.

The Defense of Legitimate Purpose. Some laws may contain a phrase that says something like “For a sexual purpose” or “For a fraudulent purpose” or “With intent to (do whatever)”. The accused claims they did not commit the act for that purpose and, therefore, are not in breach of the law. The defense is only acceptable where the law stated a purpose, and the court feels convinced the accused did not commit the act for the illegitimate purpose stated.

The Defense of Infancy. If an offense was committed by a person while younger, they cannot be held legally responsible for their actions. An accused might claim that they were younger than the age of criminal responsibility when they committed the alleged act, and therefore cannot be held accountable.

There are myriad defenses to criminal charges. Going into court to defend against criminal charges without experienced representation is akin to driving a car without a steering wheel. Sure, you’ll travel but in what direction is anyone’s guess. If you are facing criminal charges or would like more information about criminal defense, contact the Fishman Firm.