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Occasionally Hollywood Can Actually Teach You Something

by Lawrence A. Kane, January 5, 2009

Recently I watched "Felon", a movie that makes some realistic and valuable points about self-defense. The story centers around an average guy named Wade Porter (played by actor Stephen Dorff). Porter, his fiancé, and young son have just moved into their first house. After years of struggling for success, his construction business is beginning to take off, they have gotten their finances in line, the marriage ceremony is rapidly approaching, and life is good. Of course this happiness doesn’t last…

One night an intruder breaks into their home and everything changes. Porter hears a noise, finds a guy in his son’s bedroom, chases him outside, and smacks him in the head with a baseball bat, killing him. Since the burglar was unarmed and died outside the home where castle doctrines do not apply, Porter is sentenced to three years for involuntary manslaughter.

Wrong Decision

As the movie progresses, Porter soon realizes that he has lost everything over a split-second decision. The movie teaches some valuable lessons. Chasing down an unarmed intruder who’s hell-bent on escaping and attacking him is clearly not self-defense, not even in Hollywood. In fact, in most jurisdictions a person can only resort to deadly force in order to escape imminent and unavoidable danger of death or grave bodily harm. That “unavoidable” part is the bugger.

While legal definitions and interpretations are generally uniform across the country, there are differences from state to state. To stay out of jail, you need to talk to an attorney in your jurisdiction. I’m a martial arts instructor, not an attorney, so I can only provide some good guidelines. The classic rule is that self-defense begins when deadly danger begins, ends when the danger ends, and revives again if the danger returns. Neither a killing that takes place after a crime has already been committed, nor a proactive violent defense before an attack has taken place is legitimately self-defense in the eyes of the court.

AOJP Principle

How do you know when it’s legal to get physical with an adversary? Learn the AOJP (Ability, Opportunity, Jeopardy, and Preclusion) principle. If all four of these criteria are all met, you have a good case for taking action. If one or more of these conditions are absent, you’re on shaky legal ground. These guidelines are useful and easy to remember in the heat of the moment on the street.


Ability means that an attacker has both the physical as well as practical ability to seriously injure, maim, or kill you. A small child with a baseball bat does not have the same ability to cause harm as a professional ball player swinging the same hunk of wood as a weapon.


Your life and well-being must be in clear and present danger before you can legally respond with physical force. Opportunity relates not only to the attacker and the weapon, but also to the environment. A physical barrier such as a chain link fence may protect you from a knife-wielder, but not an assailant armed with a gun.


Jeopardy relates to the specifics of the situation; in fear of your life. Someone shouting, “I’m going to kill you,” while walking away is probably not an immediate threat even though he may very well come back later and try it. Someone shouting, “I love you,” while lunging toward you with a knife is most likely an imminent threat.


Even when the ability, opportunity, and jeopardy criteria are satisfied, you must still have no other safe alternatives other than physical force before engaging an opponent in combat. If you can retreat without further endangering yourself, this criterion has not been met. After all, it is impossible for the other guy to hurt you if you’re not there.

Clearly you should never let fear of legal repercussions keep you from defending yourself when your life is on the line, but a clear understanding of the law can help you make good decisions on “that day” should it ever arrive.

Since 1970, Lawrence Kane has studied and taught traditional Asian martial arts, medieval European combat, and modern close-quarter weapon techniques. Working stadium security part-time over 26 years he was involved in hundreds of violent altercations, but got paid to watch football. A world-renown judicious use-of-force expert, he was once interviewed in English by a reporter from a Swiss magazine for an article that was published in French, and finds that oddly amusing. Lawrence lives in Seattle, WA. Lawrence lives in Seattle, WA.


This is a very valuable information , thank you very much for this job!
Gabriel – January 6, 2009, 11:58 am
Nice article. Thank you Mr. Kane for sharing. I enjoyed reading it but I am puzzled about one thing: if we are being physically threatened, in serious danger but not in a life and death situation, should make a preemptory strike? What are the legal consequences of that? Or should we rather wait until we "get attacked" to respond (if by then we are still able) so there are legally justifiable reasons to counter-strike?
Anonymous – January 7, 2009, 4:13 pm

First off, I’m a martial artist not an attorney, so you’re probably best off checking with someone in your area who is a lawyer, statutes being highly nuanced and all that. Having gotten the disclaimer out of the way, the first “law” of self-defense in my book is “don’t get hit.” The best version is not being there, of course. If awareness, avoidance and de-escalation all fail, running away can still be a viable option, albeit one that needs to be strategically done. But, of course, that is not always possible.

Waiting for an adversary to attack and then trying to successfully counter when you are already injured or out of position from the force of your attacker’s initial blow is often a losing proposition as you are no doubt aware, so preemptive initiative can be appropriate in certain situations. By that I’m referring to the Japanese concept of sen-sen no sen or cutting off a blow before it starts. Ideally it’s cutting short an aggressor’s actions before he has the ability to transform the mental desire to attack into the physical movement necessary to do so. It looks an awful lot like a first strike yet is still a defensive movement. The challenge, of course, is that you need to be able to justify such actions in court. You can’t just say you had a feeling he was going to hit you. Using your words as well as your actions to create witnesses is very important.

You might want to take a look at Massad Ayoob’s Judicious Use of Lethal Force DVD. While it’s primarily designed for folks who carry a firearm for self-defense it is very applicable for martial artists as well.



Lawrence Kane – January 8, 2009, 1:51 pm
I think your too focused on legality. To me this isn't even a consideration when it comes to defending yourself. Criminals don't care about the law. Except when they get caught. You should focus on the job at hand which is protecting yourself or your loved ones. I think so called self-defense laws are pointless. The only thing I would say is to keep your mouth shut after the incident. Tell it to your lawyer not the police. Don't even chat with them because they will try to trip you up. Just keep your mouth shut. Let someone else call 911. Remember 911 is being recorded so ask someone else to call for you. The laws do not protect us nor do they punish the guilty. Look at the appalling number of crimes against children. If there was law and order in this country these crimes wouldn't happen. I'm under no obligation to be a goody tushoo citizen and dutifully turn myself in or do time because of a technicality. The Police will think you were stupid anyway. No self respecting cop would be a "solid citizen" in a situation like that so why should you. Anyway I have to get back to work. Thank-you.
berashith – February 17, 2009, 6:55 am

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