When a criminal case goes to trial, the defendant most often argues that he did not commit the crime. In an OUI case, the defendant might argue he was not under the influence of alcohol. In a rape case, the defendant might argue the sex was consensual. In a bank robbery case, the defendant might argue he was not the man wearing the mask and waving the gun. In these types of cases, juries weigh the prosecutor’s story against the defendant’s story and determine which story is true.
In some cases, however, the defendant admits the charges against him are true. However, rather than pleading guilty and being sentenced, the defendant argues there is a reason why he should not be held criminally responsible for his conduct. These reasons are called affirmative defenses. The defendant concedes he violated the law but argues he should nonetheless be found not guilty.
Some affirmative defenses relate to the defendant’s mental health or state of mind at the time he committed the crime. For example, a defendant who could not appreciate the wrongfulness of his criminal conduct because of mental illness may have committed the crime, but lacked criminal responsibility (and therefore cannot be convicted). A defendant who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol might not have possessed the specific intent necessary to commit a crime.
A person being assaulted or threatened with assault has the right to use reasonable force to defend himself or herself. Therefore, a person who uses physical force as a means of self-defense cannot be convicted of assault and battery against the aggressor. Similarly, a person who uses reasonable physical force to defend another person from being the victim of an assault will escape criminal liability. Self-defense and defense of another are some of the most common affirmative defenses.
Defendants who commit crimes sometimes claim their criminal conduct was compelled by an emergency or some sort of necessity. For example, a person who has a suspended driver’s license might believe it is necessary to drive an ill family member to the hospital. Sometimes, a defendant will claim he was forced in some way to commit a crime by a third party – he was under duress.
Parents are entitled to use reasonable physical force to discipline their children. The Supreme Judicial Court has recognized parental discipline as a defense for parents who use corporal punishment against their children.
A criminal action cannot be the result of the defendant’s accidental behavior. A defendant who trips and falls, bumping into another person on the street, will not be convicted of assault and battery if the contact was the result of the defendant’s accident.
Finally, in some cases, a defendant will fully admit to committing the crime with which he has been charged, but assert that it took too long for the Commonwealth to pursue the criminal charges against him. Most crimes have statutes of limitation that set a time limit by which a prosecutor can charge a defendant with a criminal offense.
Attorney Spring has litigated cases involving every type of affirmative defense. If you are charged with a crime, it’s important for you to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney to explore all of your litigation options.