Note from Paradox: Ask A Safety Geek is a non-advice column because at Paradox the only advice we give anyone is to trust their instincts and believe in themselves. You share your questions and we'll share our knowledge. But no matter what safety tools end up in your toolbox, the most important one will always be . . . You!
N.D. asks: "I have a question about the legality of self-defense. There's a dilemma about self-protection: if I'm too aggressive, or the act of defending myself causes the assailant injury, could I end up with assault charges? I'm worried my defense measures will be turned against me if the assailant presses charges."
This is really good, and really important question. First, mandatory disclaimer: this column is not offering legal advice. It is a great idea to understand the self-defense law in your state (and yes, it can vary quite a bit from state to state). A good place to start is to google "jury instructions for [your state]". If you do defend yourself and you are charged with a crime, these are the instructions the jury will be asked to follow in deciding whether you acted in self-defense.
Second, the answer can be fairly complicated. Could you end up with assault charges? The short answer is yes. Whether you do depends on a lot of things: who you are (are you short? tall? small? large? female? male? transgender? white? not white?), who your attacker is (ditto), where you were, who you were with, what they did, what you did, whether they had a weapon and whether you did, whether there were witnesses and what they say they saw . . . You get the picture.
Now for some good news. One of my teachers likes to ask, "Do you think of yourself as a good person? Would you ever want to physically hurt another person if you didn't have to?" If they answers are yes and no, respectively, you're probably not going to get into trouble.
Here are some general guidelines to consider, taken from California self-defense law. If you think about it, though, they all circle back to those two questions above.
1) Was the person who attacked you a real threat? In other words, could they physically harm you? This means that if you punch a little kid, it probably isn't legitimately self-defense. I say "probably" because imagine it's a kid with a weapon, or a particularly strong and mentally ill child in a blind rage . . . You get the picture. The person who you use physical force on needs to have been an actual physical threat to you.
2) Was the threat immediate? Was this person threatening to harm you right here and right now? If they were yelling at you from across the street, you can't run across the street and hit them because you felt threatened when you could just as well have avoided the potential threat.
3) Did you try everything else before resorting to physical force? This can be tricky from the perspective of an instructor. A lot of my students are afraid to use physical force ever. I don't want those students reading this and then standing there obsessing about whether there is something else they can do when an attack is imminent. I want them to feel confident to GO when it's GO time. But, if you are one of those people who answered "no" to the question of whether you'd ever want to hurt someone if you don't have to, chances are you've satisfied this requirement. If you can't escape safety, and have told the attacker no or to leave you alone and they are still coming at you, you probably don't have much left in your non-physical self-defense tool bag. If they grab you from behind for goodness sakes start fighting! You are under no obligation to try and talk your way out of that situation.
4) Finally (and I think this probably gets to the heart of your question, N.D.), you can only use enough force to get out of the situation safely. This is pretty common sense, but in the moment of an attack, with the adrenaline going, it's important. If you, say, poke someone in the eyes and they cover their face and double over and you can get to a safe place don't go in for a knee strike to the head. On the other hand, if the same person engages in the exact same kind of behavior in an isolated place and you aren't sure you can get to safety before they recover from the eye strike, you can use more force if you need to to get away.
At the end of the day, the best fight is no fight--meaning that anytime things go physical really bad things can happen including you getting badly injured, or the attacker being badly injured and you facing legal consequences for it. At the same time, if you need to use force to get out of a dangerous situation, do not hesitate.
Some resources for further reading on this subject:
Also, I ran across this breakdown of a specific fight in researching to answer your question. I think it's a good teaching tool since the person who uses physical force initially was clearly NOT acting in self-defense, but it turned into a situation where he would have been justified in using self-defense because the tables turned against him so badly. Trigger warning: the video in the linked post contains graphic violence.