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The Duress Defense in California

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Feb 13, 2024

Under California law, if you are charged with a crime that you committed because someone was threatening you with immediate harm or death otherwise, you may be able to claim duress as a valid defense. However, the crucial question is what constitutes duress. 

The duress defense, also called “coercion,” is a legal strategy that essentially seeks to shift the blame from the defendant to the person or circumstance that forced their hand. If this defense is successful, you may be exonerated from the charges. 

Duress Defense in California
A duress defense claims you only committed a crime due to an immediate threat of harm.

Simply put, when you are facing criminal charges in California, the duress defense is when you admit that you committed a crime. Still, the argument is that you had no choice because of an immediate threat of serious harm or death.

Thus, to successfully argue a duress defense, you would typically have to prove that you were threatened with harm if you refused to commit an unlawful act and
you reasonably believed that your life would be in immediate danger if you did not comply with the demand. 

Duress is not a justification for committing a crime; instead, it serves as an excuse when a defendant commits a crime because they face the threat or use of physical force. 

The defense lawyer must establish that a reasonable person in the defendant's position also would have committed the crime. Duress is somewhat like self-defense because it arises from a threat of imminent death or serious bodily injury and requires that a defendant have a reasonable fear that the threat would be carried out. 

Also, duress requires the defendant to show they had no alternative to committing the crime. Notably, this defense would not apply when you are responsible for placing yourself in a dangerous situation. It would also not generally be used in murder and other serious crimes.

This defense only carries weight in certain circumstances, and the burden of proof is on you (and, by extension, your attorney) to show that you committed the crime under duress.

What Constitutes Duress Under California Law?

Duress in the legal context refers to a situation where a person performs an act as a direct result of a threat of immediate harm or death by another party. 

It is based on the reasonable belief that there is no other way to avoid the impending threat except through compliance with the demand. "Reasonable belief" refers to the idea that any reasonable person placed in that situation would have believed harm would come to them if they did not comply with the demand to commit the crime.

By this definition, the duress defense in California is predicated on the idea that a person committed a crime because they were forced to do so under an immediate threat of death or serious bodily harm. 

Unlike defenses such as coercion or necessity, duress involves human threats that leave the defendant with no reasonable alternative but to comply. This defense acknowledges the defendant's lack of free will under dire circumstances.

What Are Some Examples?

EXAMPLE 1: A man is kidnapped and told that his family will be harmed unless he commits a robbery. He is shown a recent video shot on a phone of his family being held at gunpoint. Feeling that he has no other option, the man commits the crime to protect his family. In this case, the man could potentially argue duress as a defense.

EXAMPLE 2: A woman is threatened with a gun and forced to drive a getaway car in a bank robbery. She could use the duress defense, demonstrating that she committed the crime under immediate threat and with no reasonable opportunity to escape.

What are the Criteria for Duress Defense in California Law?

The duress defense is recognized in California and can be applied under certain conditions. However, it's not a free pass for criminal behavior. It requires specific criteria and does not apply to all crimes.

If you are claiming duress as a defense in answer to criminal charges in California, your defense attorney must prove the following elements for the defense to apply successfully: 

  • Immediate Threat: You were subjected to an immediate threat of death or serious bodily harm. (Vague threats of future harm are insufficient to use this defense.)
  • Reasonable Belief: You reasonably believed engaging in criminal conduct was the only way to avoid this threat.
  • No Reasonable Escape: You did not have a reasonable opportunity to escape the threatening situation.

What are the Outcomes, Risks, and Limitations?

For most crimes, prosecutors must prove one key element: intent—that you willfully intended to commit the crime for which you are accused. 

When successfully argued, the duress defense can lead to an acquittal because it effectively refutes this critical element of intent by saying the defendant acted under compulsion. However, the burden of proof lies entirely with the defendant. You must provide substantial evidence to convince the court that you acted under duress.

In addition, there are situations in which the duress defense will not apply. These include:

  • Murder Cases: In most cases, the duress defense cannot be used in cases involving murder charges in California.
  • Defendant Responsibility: If the court determines that you bore responsibility by placing yourself into a threatening situation, the duress defense will not work. 

Does Duress Apply if a Loved One Is Threatened with Harm?

Technically speaking, the duress defense applies when you are facing an immediate threat of harm or fear of death. However, case law exists in which the duress defense has been accepted in cases where someone close to the defendant was under an immediate threat. (See Example 2 above.) 

The defense must establish a direct connection between the defendant and the person threatened and show how that relationship was used to create duress. It would be more difficult to prove duress if you committed a crime because an unknown stranger was being threatened.

Often, people confuse the defense of duress with the defense of necessity. Both are based on a defendant being forced to commit a crime to avoid serious harm. The main response to either defense is that the defendant had another option to avert the harm. Contact us for a case review. Eisner Gorin LLP is in Los Angeles, CA.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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