Can You Claim Self-Defense in a Bar Fight?We see it in TV shows and movies all the time: if someone starts a fight with someone else, that person hits the first one and then says it was all in self-defense. When the police arrive, the person who started the fight is the one that gets in trouble. Despite many people trying to make the same claim, that is not always how it works in the real world. While bar fights are perfectly avoidable, having more than just a few drinks can definitely help stir the pot in a rowdy crowd—and proving you acted solely in a manner to defend yourself can be difficult.

An off-duty police officer was arrested after a bar fight in Anne Arundel County a few years ago. He ended up being charged with assault, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct. Now, he has criminal charges against him for what was likely a meaningless argument. Unfortunately, law enforcement may not always be on your side or see the fight the way that you did. Self-defense is a valid claim against many charges in Maryland, but you need to be aware of all the stipulations that surround it.

You need to meet certain criteria for claiming self-defense n Maryland

So, technically, you can claim self-defense in a bar fight, but it can be a challenge. Maryland does not have a self-defense law; what is has is “common law” doctrine, meaning the laws come from a series of decisions handed down by judges in various cases over the years. Part of that doctrine is a “duty to retreat”:

that is, a duty by the individual claiming self-defense to retreat and escape the danger if it was in his/her power to do so and was consistent with maintaining his/her safety. See Sydnor, 365 Md. at 216, 776 A.2d at 675. Use of deadly force traditionally has not been permissible in defense of property alone. Traditionally, under the common law, the right to the use of deadly force in self-defense did not apply until the claimant “’retreated to the wall.’”

Therefore, to be successful in a self-defense claim, you must be able to show that:

  • You did not start the fight. If the other person started the fight and you were unable to walk away, then you could claim self-defense.
  • There was reason to believe you were in danger. You need to be able to show that you “had reasonable grounds to believe that [you were] in apparent imminent or immediate danger of losing [your] own life or incurring serious bodily harm from [your]r assailant or potential assailant.”
  • You actually believed that you faced this danger. That the danger existed is not enough. You must show that you genuinely believed your life or wellbeing was at risk.
  • Used only necessary force. It can be hard to prove you acted in self-defense if someone swung at you once, then you repeatedly hit them even after they were laying on the ground. The force used in a fight can be proven by both your and the other person’s injuries, as well as witness statements and any security camera footage.

Quick note: the doctrine is suspended in incidents occurring in your own home or on your own property. They call this the “Castle doctrine,” but you may also know it as “stand your ground.” so if the “bar fight” occurred not at a bar but at your house, the four factors above should not apply.

Maryland has two different degrees of assault charges

If you get into a bar fight in Bowie or Crofton and the police arrive at the scene, you could be charged with assault. There are two different levels of assault charges: first-degree assault and second-degree assault. Second-degree is often a lesser charge while first degree is typically considered to be a felony.

Second-degree assaults

This type of assault is more commonly charged because it usually involves a confrontation that turns physical without causing any serious bodily harm. The act was intentional and the assailant likely knew they were going to cause some type of harm. Those convicted of second-degree assault could face up to 10 years in jail along with up to a $2,500 fine.

Even if you were in a fight and did not actually hit or touch the other person, you could still be charged with second-degree assault. For example, if you swung at them but didn’t connect, it is still considered to be attempted battery because you not only aimed to make physical contact, but you threatened them with physical violence.

First-degree assaults

A charge gets upped from second-degree to the first degree when the injuries are much more or were intended to be much more severe. Let’s say that an argument started and it escalated to a bar fight, but one of the people involved whipped out a handgun in the middle of it and shot another person. Even if that shot did not cause a fatality, the person with the gun clearly had intent to harm the victim. Committing an assault with any type of firearm will usually bring the charge up to a first-degree assault. In Maryland, those convicted of first-degree assault could face up to a maximum of 25 years in jail, especially if it was not their first offense.

Proving self-defense in a bar fight is not always simple

The self-defense claim generally encompasses not using any more force than necessary to protect yourself from a situation you couldn’t avoid. Because of that, a judge or jury will question if you actually used just enough force or if you actually became the aggressor in the situation, regardless of who started the fight. Plus, in cases like the off-duty police officer above, you may be charged with more than just first- or second-degree assault. You could also be facing additional charges, like for disorderly conduct.

Don’t think “it’s just a bar fight” as you battle this type of legal case on your own. The charges could be very serious and lead to jail time if convicted. If you’ve been charged with a criminal offense in a bar fight in Bowie, Crofton, or Calvert County, you need the help of the aggressive yet skilled criminal defense lawyers at Carey Law Office on your side. Call our offices or fill out our contact form to schedule a consultation.