Introduction to Common Defenses to Criminal Charges

When it comes to the criminal justice system, knowing what your defenses to a crime are can be crucial. While every scenario is different and every criminal defense attorney will do their best to perfect a defense for their life – there are a lot of standard defenses that judges hear probably on a daily basis. Even so, criminal defense is a large umbrella to dozens of different types of defenses.

Defense Number One – Didn’t Do It

introduction to common defenses to criminal chargesThis is a pretty standard and simple defense a criminal defense attorney will raise – his client, the accused, did not commit the crime he was charged with. As many people know and understand, the accused is innocent until proven guilty during a criminal trial.[i] What many people may not
understand with regards to that statement is what it actually means. Sure, the accused will remain innocent until the end of the trial – but who proves their innocent? Is the defense attorney, does he need to show that his client is innocent? Or is it the prosecution, do they need to prove the accused committed the crime? The standard is that the prosecution must prove to the fact finder (the judge or the jury depending on the case) that the accused committed the crime.[ii] What this means is that the prosecution must prove every single element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.[iii]

So, on the flip side, the defense attorney aims to put doubt in the mind of the jury. This is because if the jury has any doubt as to the charges at hand, they cannot legally find the defendant guilty. So, the defense attorney will present arguments to the prosecutions case that shows the prosecutions case is actually not that strong. If the prosecution shows evidence that the accused was seen at the scene of the crime shortly after the alleged crime was committed, but the defense attorney presents video footage of what appears to be the accused across town at that time – this will likely put doubt in the mind of the jury. Neither piece of evidence is enough to completely show where the defendant was, so it casts doubt as to which story is actually true. If the jury cannot determine where the defendant was, they would be hard pressed to find the accused guilty of that crime.

The use of an alibi is very helpful during a criminal proceeding. There are so many ways of providing an alibi to the court, but nothing guarantees that the jury will believe that the alibi is true. There are many peoples to fake an alibi, provide eyewitnesses on the stand – who never actually saw you, or provide documents you were out of the city at that time. Now, lying on the witness stand is perjury and comes with great consequences but that does not mean it does not happen. This is why an alibi is not a foolproof way of proving a person’s innocence, you never really know what is true and what is not true, but if you do have an alibi to a crime it is a good way to start proving your innocence at trial.

Defense Number Two – Defendant Did Do it, But…

There are going to be instances where the accused did actually commit the crime, but there was a valid reason for doing so.[iv] The law recognizes that sometimes even though a crime was committed, it was necessary under the circumstances. The most common of these defenses is the self-defense defense. Self-defense is commonly used by those who were involved with crimes of violence, such as battery, assault with a deadly weapon, or even murder.[v] Here, the accused will admit that they used violence toward the other party but had a valid reason to do so. Now, neither the court nor the jury will just take that with confidence and find the defendant innocent. The accused will need to prove that the violence was necessary.

common defenses to criminal charges can determine whether you are innocent or guiltyThe core pieces to evaluating a self-defense case include looking at who was the aggressor, who started the fight or the argument between the parties.[vi] If Bill walks up to a man in a bar and punches him in the face, so over an argument the two had another day or for no reason at all, Bill is the aggressor. If the man punches Bill back in the face, and then Bill punches the man again, but now is claiming self-defense – that is not going to work. Bill was the initial aggressor and started the fight. Self-defense cannot be involved by the aggressor for the defense to be valid. Now, if Bill walked up and pushed a man in the bar and that man pulled a gun on Bill, there might be a scenario where Bill’s actions after the gun was pulled may constitute self-defense, but that would depend heavily on the facts and be up to the jury to decide.

Self-defense must be a necessary and reasonable reaction to a situation – and the defendant must have had that belief at the time of the incident.[vii] So, the next factor to consider is whether or not the defendant’s belief self-defense was necessary and reasonable.[viii] The jury is left to determine if the self-defense was necessary and reasonable if it would have been objectively and subjectively. So – the person using self-defense must have believed it was necessary and reasonable to carry out the actions that they did. It must also be objectively true; meaning a person outside of the situation would have likely done the same thing based on the same facts. If everything checks out, it is likely that the fact finder will determine self-defense was appropriately used.

Defense Three – The Insanity Defense

The next defense that is used when the crime was committed but done so with a valid reason is the insanity defense. This defense is based heavily on statutes and varies depending on the state where the crime took place.[ix] The insanity defense is generally based on the principle that punishment is only justified where the accused was capable of controlling their behavior and understood that his actions were wrong. If the accused lacks those abilities, then the defense of insanity would play a vital role. The insanity defense provides a shield from punishment for those who are unable to understand their actions.[x]

The general insanity defense is not just one defense that covers all types of insanity – there are many different areas within the defense that may be used, but again this will depend on the jurisdiction where the trial is taking place. The M’Naghten test for insanity is one of the most common types of insanity defenses.[xi] The M’Naghten test has been utilized by the court system since1843 and was developed based on an English case.[xii] An offender is deemed insane under the M’Naghten test if the mental illness that afflicts them prevents the offender from knowing the difference between right and wrong.[xiii] An example of insanity under this test would be the following. A man murdered his wife and daughter, and then waited calmly for the police to arrive.[xiv] Three mental insanity defense as one of the common defenses to criminal chargeshealth experts testified that he was too psychologically ill to understand that his criminal acts were wrong.[xv] He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to ten years in a mental health facility.[xvi]

Since the creation of the M’Naghten test, some jurisdictions have created a blending of that rule with more elements. Under what is known as the Brawner Test, an accused is insane if, by mental defect, they lack the substantial capacity to appreciate the criminality of their actions or the ability to conform their behavior to legal requirements.[xvii]

Other states take it a step further and add in what is known as the irresistible impulse test.[xviii] Under this test, the accused will be deemed insane if a mental disorder prevents the accused from resisting the commission of an illegal act that they know is wrong. This could be a harder defense to prove since the accused still had the ability to know their actions were wrong, but could not control themselves.

Many people believe that if an accused person is found guilty by reason of insanity, that just because they do not need to go to jail they will just be let off. This is simply not true. Those who are found guilty by reason of insanity are rarely set free after the trial. Rather, the accused will then be confined to a mental health institution, which in some cases may mean they will be confined for longer than they would have been if they had just gone to jail.[xix] Typically, the accused will remain in the mental health facility until they can prove to the judge that they are no longer legally insane.[xx] And for some, this day may never come.

Defense Four – The Affluenza Defense

afluenza defense as one of the common defenses to criminal chargesThe Affluenza Defense has been around for some time, but it has made a huge splash in the media because of the recent case with a rich young man who was given just two years of probation after killing four people while drinking and driving. The defense attorneys for this case reasoned with the court that the young man was too rich to understand that his actions were wrong, that his parents brought him up with the understanding that the law basically did not apply to him or their family.[xxi] In a way, this defense is similar to an insanity defense, mainly because the defense attorneys made the argument that the young man did not understand his actions.

Even though it seemed like a far-fetched defense, it worked out well for the young man. He will only be serving two years for his crimes, even though the standard for these crimes, at least in Arizona, would have been over twenty years.

Conclusion to Common Defenses to Criminal Charges

There are a lot of standard defenses to criminal actions in the United States criminal justice system. Each standard defense can be broken down into subcategories as well as specialized categories for the accused. It is important to know the variety of criminal defenses; you never know when you might just need one. For more information on common criminal defenses contact an experienced Phoenix criminal lawyer .

[i] See Defenses to Criminal Charges NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed July 19, 2016) http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/defenses-criminal-charges-30275.html

[ii] See Burdens of Proof in a Criminal Case NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed July 19, 2016) http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/burdens-proof-criminal-cases.html

[iii] Id.

[iv] See Defenses to Criminal Charges NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed July 19, 2016) http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/defenses-criminal-charges-30275.html

[v] Id.

[vi] Id.

[vii] Id.

[viii] Id.

[ix] Id.

[x] Id.

[xi] See Pleading Insanity in a Criminal Case NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed July 19, 2016) http://www.criminaldefenselawyer.com/resources/criminal-defense/criminal-defense-case/pleading-insanity-a-criminal-defense-case

[xii] Id.

[xiii] Id.

[xiv] See The M’Naghten Rule Find Law (Accesed July 15, 2016) http://criminal.findlaw.com/criminal-procedure/the-m-naghten-rule.html

[xv] Id.

[xvi] Id.

[xvii] Id.

[xviii] Id.

[xix] Id.

[xx] Id.

[xxi] See Lily Rothman. The ‘Affluenza’ Defense is Older Than You Think. Time Magazine. (Published February 9,2016). http://time.com/4206296/affluenza-leopold-loeb/