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Thursday, January 01, 2009

To thine own self be true?

If you injure someone in self-defense, do you then have a duty to aid him? A student asked me this, which got me thinking ... if I were to get the jump on Jason Voorhees before he was able to cleave me in half with his ax, leaving him mortally wounded (but not irretrievably so), would I need to call the doctor, quick, quick, quick? Instinct says, no, let the psychopath bleed out. Logic, however, says that I might need to hit ‘911’ on the dial pad. I would, after all, have had a hand in creating the peril that has befallen him. Even if he was the aggressor and I was justified in my use of force to save my own skin, this very same force has now put him in harm’s way. I went a-hunting and found that at least one court has ventured down this path. The Montana Supreme Court, in Montana v. Kuntz, 995 P.2d 951 (Mt. 2000), held that, while folks who put other folks in peril need not risk bodily injury or death to help the imperiled, imperilers do have a legal duty to help or summon help. A failure to so aid, if it causes the aggressor’s death, is criminal. In the Montana case, Ms. Kuntz apparently stabbed her significant other in the chest in self-defense. She did not call for medical help, and her boyfriend died. The State alleged that she caused his death by stabbing him and by failing to call for medical assistance. Kuntz argued that her justifiable use of force nullified any duty on her part to assist. The trial and supreme courts disagreed with her argument, finding that the justification did not render her duty-free. The case was remanded, and this is where the case history trail ended. I am curious to know whether anyone knows of other cases addressing this issue. How often do self-defenders face charges for failing to obtain help for their aggressors?

Posted by Susan Kuo on January 1, 2009 at 02:01 AM in Criminal Law | Permalink


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Anon 2:41: Placing the fact pattern inside motor vehicles changes things. At least in Ohio, if you continued on to work after knocking a car off the road, even in self-defense, you'd be guilty of the misdemeanor offense of leaving the scene of an accident.

Perhaps the justification for requiring a driver to stay put is simply to make filing insurance claims easier, but perhaps the law also embodies a preference for ensuring the well-being of others before heading on down the road.

Posted by: Donald | Jan 3, 2009 10:34:29 PM

There are perhaps scores of general principles that seem at odds or contradictory and many are. Judicial opinions rationalize the use of a particular principle in a particular case. Thus, depending on the circumstances one of perhaps many competing general principles may ultimately be relied on in deciding a concrete case. Each of the general principles has a context in which its application rationally appears preferable to others. Without these general principles what would guide judicial reasoning in the concrete cases?

Posted by: Jim | Jan 2, 2009 8:36:02 AM

Why isn't this concrete enough for you? The facts presented embody the question posited in the initial post. The officer didn't legally cause the harm, but did cause it. Law enforcement has no general duty to aid different than a civilian.

Are you advocating the MN rule, or a new law enforcement exception to the American rule? (By saying it is gray, you are saying that some exception might apply.) This scenario is practical because officers could find themselves answering to these suits if a duty were established, and criminals may feel they have a right to reasonable care even if they were initially legally harmed by an officer (presume in this case that they were not taken into custody, but simply left where they fell).

Posted by: real world utility | Jan 1, 2009 8:54:34 PM

"If the answer is yes, then you will be forced to defend your timeline/facts in court at great expense to you."

Frankly, you are going to have to do that anyway. The only way to avoid such a situation (of going to court) is to establish a rule that 100% of the time there is no duty to aid (black) or 100% of the time there is a duty to aid (white). I personally don't believe that either black or white position is ethically sound nor do they make wise public policy positions. That leads to situations that are filled with gray. And once you accept the fact that the situations are filled with gray, thought experiments don't do you a lot of good. It's possible to invent all sorts of hypothetical situations that allow you to put the ball on one side of the question or the other. Such hypothetical situations neither prove anything nor illustrate anything; for every example there is a counter example.

It's kind of sad, actually. The law should be the study of concrete cases. AS SJC Holmes said, "General principles don't decide concrete cases." So maybe it's better to stop trying to invent general principles based upon easily manipulatable hypothetical situations and instead focus on the concrete cases.

Posted by: Daniel | Jan 1, 2009 8:24:36 PM

You are a police officer. You respond to an armed burglary. First burglar comes at you with a gun, so you shoot him. Second burglar is still armed and at large, so you go to look for him with your partner and leave the wounded burglar laying there. As you go to assist your partner, the wounded burglar asks for aid. You call for aid and render aid several minutes later.

Later, the wounded burglar sues you for failure to timely obtain medical care, claiming that the delay caused substantial injuries. He does not challenge the legality of the shooting, so it is presumed to be lawful. You could have walked by the guy if you had not shot him. Do you have to provide aid at all? If the answer is yes, then you will be forced to defend your timeline/facts in court at great expense to you.

Posted by: real world utility | Jan 1, 2009 7:15:09 PM

I just think this is one of those thought experiments that doesn't have any real world utility. The questions are too fact bound. Who did what when and how. Shooting someone til there good and dead makes a lot of sense if they are jumping on you with a cleaver hopped up on PCP. It might be totally irrational in the case where someone throws a rock at you from 100 yards away. I simply don't think there are hard and fast logical bounds that can be drawn that will eliminate all the gray areas. Some questions are truly circumstantial; what would a "reasonable person" do in that situation considering the totality of the circumstances?

"If you injure someone in self-defense, do you then have a duty to aid him?" The only honest and ethical answer is: it depends.

Posted by: Daniel | Jan 1, 2009 3:23:53 PM

hadar's distinction between justification and excuse work nicely with anon's argument. seems to me that anon is also time-framing broadly, so as to consider the self-defender's act in the context of the initial aggressive act, instead of limiting the duty analysis to the self-defender's act and its aftermath.

joel's description of the mn statute indicates, to me, that the mn legislature has time-framed narrowly. this result also appears to correspond with the policy underlying the duty to retreat -- a policy that values even an aggressor's life. morally, i agree with joel, but this does clash jarringly with what i suspect would be my inclination to 'kill cujo until he's good and dead'.

howard, i thought that the kuntz decision might be context-driven as well, but the court shied away from finding a status duty to aid in that case. instead, it determined that a "duty based on 'creation of the peril' is far more closely aligned with the factual circumstances here. Undoubtedly, when a person places another in a position of danger, and then fails to safeguard or rescue that person, and the person subsequently dies as a result of this omission, such an omission may be sufficient to support criminal liability." so, at least in mt and mn, jason voorhees might live to kill another day -- the 13th friday the 13th?

Posted by: Susan Kuo | Jan 1, 2009 1:20:22 PM

Legally, it depends; in Minnesota, where I live, there is a statutory requirement to render aid if you shoot somebody, or even if you witness a shooting where somebody is harmed; there's no self-defense exception or requirement. The law, though, is specific that summoning aid -- like, say, calling 911 -- counts.

Morally, I think it's pretty clear. Self-defense is self-defense; it's not an exception to the prohibition against retaliation, even though it may work that way. Letting somebody bleed to death when you could have stopped that by picking up a phone is, pretty obviously, a form of passive retaliation/punishment.

Practically -- and while IANAL, I do teach people who want to get carry permits in my state, and have spent a fair amount of time talking to real lawyers who have defended real people in self-defense situations -- since calling 911 is almost certainly a good idea as part of your legal self-defense, the fact that it also fulfills a legal requirement to render aid (again, hereabouts) is a fortunate coincidence. How often do self-interest, law, and ethics align so well?

Posted by: Joel Rosenberg | Jan 1, 2009 12:09:39 PM

Might the context have mattered in Kuntz--a domestic conflict with an intimate person v. an encounter with a random, unknown psycho?

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jan 1, 2009 10:46:35 AM

Given criminal law's obsession with analytical hairsplitting distinctions, one could make an argument that, once the immediate emergency that permitted action in self defense is over, the normal rules of the game are restored, and therefore there is a legal duty to help.

Another possible argument, building on anon's comment, could build on the justification/excuse dichotomy. That is, if self defense is classified as a justification, you could argue that, indeed, nothing wrong has happened, so the duty didn't attach. On the other hand, if it is classified as an excuse, perhaps you could say that, while we're willing to hold the particular person irresponsible for their actions, an infraction has occurred and it yields a duty to help.

Posted by: Hadar Aviram | Jan 1, 2009 9:53:59 AM

I was mulling this over with a friend the other day who is defending someone in just this situation - but in a civil duty to assist context. I will check to see if she found any case law. My personal take on it was that because there is no legal duty to help in general, and you are not the legal cause of the injury to the other, your factual involvement should not trigger a duty.

If a car runs off the road, you can witness it, ignore it, and continue on to work. If that same car intentionally tries to run you off the road, but you undertake maneuvers to protect yourself and knock it off instead, you should still be able to continue on to work. In the civil context, your negligence in knocking a car off the road would trigger a duty to aid. In this instance, you did nothing wrong, so where does the duty arise? Why is it different from witnessing an injury just because the aggressor involved you involuntarily?

Posted by: anon | Jan 1, 2009 2:41:22 AM

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