We shall discuss what is self-defense in Criminal Law. The law is harsh but it is the law.1 Still, we are blessed that laws promote the common good and protect our life and rights under the rule of law and a regime of justice. Nonetheless, what if our lives are in jeopardy right now and no one with authority can help us? Must we simply accept being harmed or killed by other people? Can we defend ourselves?
How far may one go in self-defense before crossing the line? Yet, suppose you have to protect yourself and end up killing someone. What are the legal ramifications of using force in self-defense? The law may be harsh, but it provides clear direction on how to address these issues.
Article 11, par. 1, Revised Penal Code (RPC) provides as a justifying circumstance that the following do not incur any criminal liability:
“Anyone who acts in defense of his person or rights, provided that the following circumstances concur;2
“First. Unlawful aggression.3
“Second. Reasonable necessity of the means employed to prevent or repel it.4
What is self-defense in Criminal Law?
Self-defense refers to the situation described above. When one’s limb, person, or legal rights are threatened, the need to defend oneself naturally arises. Humans have an innate need to protect themselves from harm. In these specific conditions, the defender cannot be held criminally responsible, provided all the requisites for valid self-defense exists.
Elements of self-defense
Hence, we have to understand each element as follows:
The unlawful aggression must be actual or imminent that is not authorized by law. It is actual if it is an attack with physical force or with a weapon that is an offensive act that positively shows the intent of the aggressor to cause an injury.
Imminent unlawful aggression means an attack that is about to happen; it must not only be imaginary, a threatening or intimidating attitude, or merely a belief that one is about to be attacked.
It must be an offensive, endangering and positively strong act, manifestly showing an intent to cause injury. It is necessary that such intent is obviously revealed by some external acts showing the start of actual and material unlawful aggression.
Reasonable necessity of the means employed to prevent or repel it
This element requires a reasonable proportionality between the unlawful aggression and the defensive response. This does not mean material commensurability between the means of attack and defense, that is, one has to look for a knife if attacked with a knife. The law requires that the means employed by the person invoking self-defense contemplates a rational equivalence between the means of attack and the defense.
Someone who retaliated with a bomb for being punched several times does not show rational equivalence but one who is about to get shot, threw a kitchen knife at the shooter because it is the only weapon that is within the reach of the defender shows rationale equivalence.
The latter was reasonable from his standpoint at the time he acted in the light of the circumstances as they then appeared to him, not in the light of circumstances as they would appear to others with the poise of a person not under imminent threat or fatal harm. The court shall consider that he had no time to reflect and to reason out his responses.
In emergencies when someone is about to be shot on the head, it is human nature to act on the instinct of self-preservation rather than usual normal reasoning when there is no fatal danger; and when it is apparent that a person has reasonably acted upon this instinct, the court’s duty is to sanction the act and hold the act free from criminal liability.
Lack of sufficient provocation on the part of the person defending himself
This element requires the person invoking self-defense to be reasonably blameless. He must not have antagonized or incited the attacker into launching an assault. This also requires proportionality. It is sufficient if it is proportionate to the aggression, adequate enough to impel one to attack the person claiming self-defense
In the case of People vs. Nugas y Mapait,6 the following situation happened:
Glen was driving, with Nugas on the backseat. Nugas claimed that he argued with Glen about the fare, because Glen was overcharging; that when he was about to alight, Glen punched him and leaned forward as if to get something from his clutch bag that was on the dashboard. Thinking that Glen was reaching for a gun inside the clutch bag, he stabbed Glen with his left hand from behind Glen in order to protect himself. Nugas admitted that he did not actually see if Glen had a gun in his clutch bag.7
The court held that:
“It is also highly improbable that the victim, in relation to accused-appellant Nugas position, can launch an attack against the latter. First, the victim was at the driver’s seat and seated between him were his wife and two children. Second, the victim was driving the FX vehicle. Third, accused-appellant Nugas was seated directly behind the victim. All things considered, it is highly improbable, nay risky for the victim’s family, for him to launch an attack.8
“Consequently, Nugas had absolutely no basis for pleading self-defense because he had not been subjected to either actual or imminent threat to his life. He had nothing to prevent or to repel considering that Glen committed no unlawful aggression towards him.9
“Unlawful aggression is the main and most essential element to support the theory of self-defense and the complete or incomplete exemption from criminal liability; without such primal requisite it is not possible to maintain that a person acted in self-defense within the terms under which unlawful aggression is subordinate to the other two conditions named in article 8, No. 4, of the Penal Code (Now Article 11, 1, Revised Penal Code).10
“When an act of aggression is in response to an insult, affront, or threat, it cannot be considered as a defense but as the punishment which the injured party inflicts on the author of the provocation, and in such a case the courts can at most consider it as a mitigating circumstance, but never as a reason for exemption, except in violation of the provisions of the Penal Code.”11
When unlawful aggression had already ceased, there is no self-defense
In the case of People vs. Escarlos,12 according to the defense, there was an altercation before the stabbing incident. The victim held a knife but the appellant disarmed the victim and thereafter stabbed the victim with it.
“Even assuming that there was an altercation before the stabbing incident and that some danger did in fact exist, the imminence of that danger had already ceased the moment appellant disarmed the victim by wresting the knife from the latter. After the former had successfully seized it, there was no longer any unlawful aggression to speak of that would have necessitated the need to kill the latter. Hence, appellant became the unlawful aggressor when he stabbed the victim.13
“When an unlawful aggression that has begun no longer exists, the one who resorts to self-defense has no right to kill or even to wound the former aggressor. When the present victim no longer persisted in his purpose or action to the extent that the object of his attack was no longer in peril, there was no more unlawful aggression that would warrant legal self-defense on the part of appellant. Undoubtedly, the latter went beyond the call of self-preservation when he proceeded to inflict excessive, atrocious and fatal injuries on the latter, even when the allegedly unlawful aggression had already ceased.”14
Defense of property or honor
To defend oneself is to defend one’s life, property, and reputation. The only time a person’s right to defend their property can be used is if their own life, person, or limb is being unlawfully attacked. One is not justified in taking another’s life just to protect one’s property, a principle which is covered by the element of reasonable necessity.
In order to be exempt from criminal liability when protecting one’s person or rights, all three components of self-defense must be met. The elements of self-defense are unlawful aggression, the justifiable necessity of the means taken to avoid or repel it, and the absence of adequate provocation on the part of the person defending himself. One’s property and one’s reputation are both protected by the right to self-defense. Only in the event of unlawful attack against one’s person or limb can the right to one’s property be asserted.
The right to life is enshrined in the 1987 Constitution of the Philippines. All human life, including our own, is sacred and must be safeguarded at all times. Hence, we have the right to take whatever measures are necessary to ensure our own safety and of others, so long as we do it out of a sense of justice rather than vengeance or evil motive.
If we can prove we were acting in self-defense, we should not face legal consequences for our actions. If not, then we must bear the repercussions of our conduct. As harsh as the law may be, it is nonetheless the law.
- From the maxim of Roman civil law: “Dura lex sed lex”
- Article 11, Paragraph 1, Revised Penal Code
- G.R. No. 172606, November 23, 2011
- G.R. No. 148912, September 10, 2003