Self-Defense Defense-Understanding the "Reasonable Person Test"

Since this came up in another discussion and since it’s obvious there are lots of misconceptions about what qualifies as lawful self defense I thought it deserved a topic of it’s own.

Prosecutors will use this test in determining to charge or not charge.

Judges and Juries will also apply the same test so it’s very important to understand it and keep it in the back of your mind when examining self defense shootings and determining when the time comes if you would be acting lawfully to do so.

There’s a good article here on the subject.


A key point from the article. You can believe that you are acting reasonably and within the law and still end up in prison because you have an “imperfect self defense claim”.

A person who meets the reasonable man standard and who clearly acted to save their life or that of another within the bounds and scope of the law is what’s called “perfect self-defense.” Imperfect self-defense is a situation where a person honestly believed their life was in danger, but it wasn’t a reasonable belief. The latter can result in conviction, despite an earnest belief that one’s life was in danger.

What, though, is reasonable? The hypothetical reasonable person knows the law and is a totally model citizen. Such a person doesn’t get hyper-emotional and does the right thing at the right time all the time. That can be a high standard to meet.


Good point.

If I believe it to be reasonable but the jury disagrees… that’s the thing that scares me.
Finding a jury of people who understand what’s reasonable in the same way I do… Well it’s one of many reason we now live in Missouri instead of California. We prefer to live amongst people who understand “reasonable” more the way we do.

Case in point right in the article… the idea that wetting the hay down periodically would be a reasonable approach to reducing the risk of setting the house on fire. Reasonable city people might think it’s a reasonable thing to do.

In fact, if you do that the hay will compost, heat up, and there’s a good chance it will eventually spontaneously combust, setting the hypothetical garage and house on fire. A reasonable country person would know that was NOT a reasonable thing to do.

In this case, a city jury might find for your reasonableness differently than the country jury.

There’s not a lot of law on hay storage so reasonable or correct understanding of the law isn’t a factor in this case, but city/country expectations and knowledge is part of the context which would influence what is found “reasonable”.

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Even in the city you’d have no problem convincing them with citations that wetting the hay down would likely lead to combustion.

The big issue with the Reasonable Person Test in SD is that it’s based on the given facts of the case and the law and your atty’s way to explain it to 12 people who are already angry because they couldn’t get out of Jury duty.

More importantly, that’s the same test that will be applied by the police and prosecutors in deciding to arrest, charge, and indict you.

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