Recent Arizona Case Broadens the Definition of “Immediate Threat” for Purposes of Asserting a Justification Defense: What It Means for Your Case.

Recently, the Arizona Supreme Court issued an opinion in a case that may have an impact on the kinds of defenses you can use in your case moving forward. In Arizona v. Richter, the court considered whether the defendant, who was charged with kidnapping and child abuse, could admit evidence showing that she was afraid her husband would hurt or kill her if she did not go along with his continued abuse of their children. The defendant wanted to admit this evidence as part of as part of a justification defense, and the court had to determine if it could be admitted as such or if it should rather be characterized as inadmissible evidence of diminished capacity. Ultimately, the court decided that the evidence should have been admitted to support her justification defense, and ordered that the defendant should receive a new trial.

In making this decision, the court held that an ongoing threat, such as that from one spouse to another threatening violence or death if they do not go along with something, can constitute an “immediate threat” for the purposes of raising a duress defense. The court held that this is true even if the threat precedes the illegal conduct by several days, if the coercing party is physically removed from the defendant, or if the threat is initiated and repeatedly renewed over the course of several years.

To fully understand the court’s decision, it is necessary to look at Arizona state law. Arizona justifies a person’s otherwise wrongful conduct if the offender acted out of duress, and it states that a person is justified by virtue of duress if “a reasonable person would believe that he was compelled to engage in the proscribed conduct by threat or use of immediate physical force” against themselves, or another which either resulted, or could result, in “serious physical injury with a reasonable person in the situation would not have resisted.”

Regarding immediacy, Arizona says that the “threat or use of immediate physical force” component of duress has been defined as one that is “present, imminent and impending.” Here, the court broadened that definition to hold that an immediate threat does not have to occur in the moments directly prior to a defendant’s unlawful action (as discussed in the second paragraph above).

This decision provides good news for many criminal defendants moving forward. It means that if you were subjected to repeated threats over the course of any period of time, such that you feared for your or others’ safety, and you acted wrongfully (against the law) as a result of that well-founded fear, you can present the evidence of this repeated threatening behavior as part of your justification defense. This is true even if the most recent threat did not occur in the moments directly preceding your actions.

At Arizona Lawyers, we are committed to giving everyone high quality criminal defense services. We stay on top of the most recent legal developments, and use our knowledge and expertise to provide you with aggressive, informed representation. We serve clients in the Phoenix, Scottsdale, Mesa, Yuma, Flagstaff, and Glenndale areas, and are ready to help you. Contact us today.