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Flannel Doctrine and Imperfect Self-Defense

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Sep 08, 2023

The State of California gives citizens the right to defend themselves against attackers--but that doesn't mean that you couldn't still face criminal charges for killing someone even if you believe you did so to protect yourself or someone else.

Self-defense can be a viable defense against murder charges only if specific criteria are met. But what if you kill someone because you believed you or someone you loved was in imminent danger, but your belief was not reasonable under the circumstances?

Flannel Doctrine and Imperfect Self-Defense in California
Imperfect self-defense is killing someone based on an unreasonable belief deadly force was needed.

This is where the concept of "imperfect self-defense" comes into play--also known as the "Flannel Doctrine." In murder cases where self-defense doesn't entirely justify the death, successfully claiming "imperfect self-defense" may get a murder charge downgraded to voluntary manslaughter, resulting in a significantly lighter sentence.

Simply put, imperfect self-defense is a legal concept that arises in California Penal Code 187 PC murder cases. It applies when the perpetrator kills someone based on an honest but unreasonable belief in the need to use deadly force in self-defense or defense of others.

Suppose a jury finds that the accused person acted in imperfect self-defense. In that case, the charge can be reduced from murder to voluntary manslaughter.

Thus, rather than life in state prison for a murder conviction, a defendant will face sentencing for manslaughter, which carries only three to 11 years in prison.

Therefore, the question is whether the accused's belief about the need to use deadly force was reasonable. For example, would a reasonable person have acted similarly under similar circumstances?

If true, the defense is complete or “perfect” and justifies an acquittal of the murder charges. However, suppose the defendant's belief was unreasonable. In that case, the defense is incomplete or “imperfect.” The defendant would still be guilty of a serious crime, not PC 187 murder. Let's review further below.

What Is the "Flannel Doctrine?"

The Flannel Doctrine is a legal principle in criminal law, specifically recognized in California, about imperfect self-defense.

It stems from the case of People v. Flannel (1979). It posits that an individual's genuine belief in the necessity to defend against perceived imminent danger, even if this belief is deemed unreasonable by conventional standards, can negate the element of malice aforethought required for a murder conviction.

This principle underscores that perceptions of fear and danger can be subjective and may not always align with what is generally considered "reasonable."

The idea, then, is that the penalty for murder may be too severe for someone who believed they were reasonably acting in self-defense, even if the strict criteria for "self-defense" could not be met.

Perfect vs. Imperfect Self-Defense

The Flannel Doctrine enables defendants, the courts, and trial juries to differentiate between perfect and imperfect self-defense. For self-defense (aka, "perfect" self-defense) to apply, both of the following must be true:

  • The defendant had a reasonable expectation of imminent peril to themselves or someone else, either of being killed or suffering great bodily injury and
  • The defendant reasonably believed deadly force was necessary to counteract the threat (and used such force).

If these criteria are met, the defendant may be fully acquitted under a "perfect self-defense claim" as their actions are justified under the law.

Perfect vs. Imperfect Self-Defense
The Flannel Doctrine allows juries to differentiate between perfect and imperfect self-defense.

Imperfect self-defense is a type of voluntary manslaughter. It's not a complete defense but rather a partial one. The term refers to a homicide where the accused believes their deadly act was necessary and reasonable, but it was not. Further, a reasonable person in their situation would not have acted similarly.

For imperfect self-defense to apply, at least one of the two criteria must be deemed unreasonable rather than reasonable. In other words, the defendant either believed unreasonably that there was imminent danger, or they thought unreasonably that deadly force was the only way to end the immediate threat.

In either case, the fear of harm was genuine, albeit unfounded. This form of self-defense does not entirely absolve the defendant of guilt but can reduce charges.

When Should You Claim Imperfect Self-Defense?

While the idea of perfect self-defense seems straightforward, it is not always easy to prove for two critical reasons:

  • What constitutes "reasonable" can be highly subjective and vary significantly from case to case. This subjectivity can result in inconsistent verdicts, with some defendants being acquitted while others are convicted for similar actions.
  • The idea of "imminent peril" can also be problematic. In some situations, an individual might genuinely fear for their life, even if the danger is not immediate. The law's strict insistence on imminence can sometimes fail to protect individuals in such scenarios.

This is where imperfect self-defense comes into play. Imperfect self-defense acknowledges that fear and danger are not always rational. An individual might genuinely believe they are in danger, even if others deem that belief unreasonable.

How Can You Prove a Claim of Imperfect Self-Defense?

Strategies for asserting the doctrine of imperfect self-defense include satisfying the legal requirements and explaining the accused's version of what happened.

Often, the accused will be arguing for complete self-defense. Imperfect self-defense is a backup option. This could prove helpful when the jury finds the accused's beliefs or acts unreasonable but does not amount to the mental state necessary for murder.

To claim imperfect self-defense in a murder case, a skilled California criminal defense attorney will demonstrate the following key elements:

  • Genuine belief in threat. The defendant must have harbored an authentic belief that they were in imminent danger. This belief does not need to be reasonable by conventional standards, but it must be true and sincere from the defendant's perspective. In other words, the defendant's actions would have been justified if the threat were real.
  • The victim demonstrated unlawful aggression. In other words, the defendant did not cause or provoke the conflict, leading to the perception of imminent danger.
  • The circumstances and the defendant's background explain their response to the threat.The idea is to let the jury see through the eyes of the accused. Would they have reacted similarly if they had lived through the defendant's history and experienced what they experienced?

As noted, a successful imperfect self-defense case in California will result in a murder charge being reduced to voluntary manslaughter, with lesser penalties.

If you or a family member is facing homicide charges in California, contact our law firm to review the case details and discuss legal options. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices 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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