top of page
  • Writer's pictureBlair Goss

What Is the Duress Law in California? - Can It Be the Basis of a Defense Strategy?

The concept of duress in California law is sometimes considered a way to justify a criminal act committed by a defendant. There are different types of duress examples in California law.

Not all of the scenarios where this law can come into play will involve someone experiencing serious bodily harm. To build a duress defense, the person will have had to have found themselves under some type of perceived threat. Goss Law can help with other questions like Can you threaten to sue someone California?

This person could've had the reasonable belief that if they didn't act the way they did, they would be putting themselves at risk. Their situation could then justify the crime that they committed.

Duress Defense after Inflicting Serious Bodily Harm to Another Person

Duress Defense after Inflicting Serious Bodily Harm to Another Person

Defendants could argue duress in a situation where they are being physically assaulted by another person. They then retaliate with equal force and cause harm to the other party who is now suing them.

In these situations, the defendant would have to prove that there was no other reasonable alternative for them in that scenario. This is where the main idea behind duress presents itself in cases where there is a physical altercation involved.

The person who is implementing a duress defense has to prove that they acted a certain way because the other party forced them to. One of the biggest challenges in these situations for the defendant is to find evidence to support their claim.

How Effective Can This Defense Be?

If the person can prove that they felt threatened by the other party and that justified their behavior, this defense can be very effective. The problem with many of these situations that involve a physical altercation is that it may be hard to collect enough evidence to make these claims. This could be a much more effective defense if there are eyewitness accounts of the altercation.

Street cameras or any other recording devices that could have the event on tape are another key element that the defense team would need to collect. That could help them build a case that would justify the violence that someone used if they could prove they had a reason to feel threatened. Many times, the legal team will advise against pursuing a duress defense if they don't feel they can collect enough evidence to build a case.

When there are ways to prove that a person was under threat, and therefore, acted accordingly, it makes perfect sense to pursue this type of defense. It's likely that the other party will try and push for some type of settlement when they know they are in the wrong.

The Criminal Act Committed Has to Be Proceeded by an Actual Threat

To be able to argue a duress defense effectively under California law, the person needs to react accordingly to the threat that they are posed with. If someone launches a threat that involves punching the other person in the face and the other person reacts by shooting them and causing their death, duress is not the right type of defense. Duress can be argued only when another person is forcing a potential defendant to commit a crime.

The duress law doesn't contemplate the death of a person under the circumstances that it covers. The best way to build a duress defense is to ensure that the reaction is equal to the threat. When the reaction of a person exceeds the level of the threat that they are subjected to, it's going to be harder to prove their innocence.

Situations Where an Economic Duress Defense Can Be Justified

Under California law, situations where a person can argue economic duress as a defense are very extensive. In most of these cases, the victim argues that they were made to commit an act against their free will.

The perfect example of economic duress happens when someone is threatened by another person who forces them to wire transfer money to an unknown account. Some of the more common issues these days involve scams or ransom payments.

In certain situations, people can argue that they were under duress, and therefore, should not be held liable for those payments. An economic duress defense is also common in issues between estranged spouses.

One spouse could be threatening the other party, saying that they won't allow them to see the children if they don't pay them a set amount of money.

The spouse who is on the receiving end of these threats could build a case against their significant other under these circumstances. It may be much easier to use the concept of duress under California law as the main defense in these economic situations.

The spouse potentially texted some type of threat to their significant other at some point. That can be used as clear evidence to prove a point.

Can a Duress Defense Help in Scams and Frauds?

When people are scammed into making payments against their free will, there's usually also a text message that can be followed. These texts can be a great way to prove the victim was under threat and attackers had induced a sense of fear in them to the point where they definitely made decisions that were against their free will. There's also proof that another person may have been behind a potential fraud.

Elements That Can Help Build a Case Around a Duress Issue

There are different types of "threats" that, when they take place, can make duress a very valid defense under California law. When a person threatens to destroy someone else's property unless they receive a payment, the victim can claim duress.

Other common instances where defendants have decided to claim duress as their main defense involve the aforementioned spousal issues, particularly around children. Similar situations have occurred within immediate families where a sibling may be holding their parents essentially hostage or away from their other family members.

In certain cases, this is also a form of blackmail to try and earn favors or money from their siblings. Most of the cases where duress can be claimed as a valid defense have some form of blackmail or direct threat that's thrown in the direction of the defendant.

When Is Duress Not a Rightful Defense?

The duress law is not one that's meant to justify any act of violence that a person could commit. What also can't be justified through this law is a lack of payment, particularly one made to a spouse or some form of child support. If there's a contract between two parties and one side isn't holding up their end of the bargain, it's hard to argue duress as the cause for those actions.

Some people want to argue that they are being pressured through a wrongful threat to pay child support, for example.

While it's not justified to launch a threat onto a spouse to get them to pay child support if that happens, that wouldn't necessarily be an issue where the duress law comes into play. Now, if one person is trying to pressure their partner to give them extra money on the side on top of the agreed-upon child support payments, then the duress law could come into play.

In these situations, it's usually easy to catch a party making demands outside of the agreed-upon payments. There are usually text messages and calls that can confirm that a wrongful threat took place.

What Qualifies as Emotional Duress?

Emotional duress involves using some type of psychological manipulation to get an innocent party to act in a way that they otherwise wouldn't have. Usually, victims of emotional duress will argue that someone induced fear in them that caused them to react in a particular way. Many of these situations in which the duress law applies can feature psychological, economic, and physical manipulation at times simultaneously.

The child support scenario that was referenced earlier could also qualify under emotional duress, especially if the spouse isn't asking for money in return as part of the manipulation process. They could be forcing their former partner to spend time with them against their will under the threat that if they don't, they won't be allowed to see the children.

Self Defense vs. Duress - What Should a Defendant Argue?

Technically, a person who commits a violent act against another could argue duress as their main defense. They were put in a position by this person where they felt in danger. That's ultimately why they reacted the way that they did and caused harm to them.

The main difference between a case built around a duress defense and one where the defendant argues self-defense is the outcome of the altercation. When the altercation ends with someone dead, then duress can't be used as a defense. The law clearly states that duress cannot be used to justify homicide.

Defendants who are being accused of homicide and admit to the act but want to justify their actions don't really have many more options. They'd have to plead their case as a self-defense scenario. That law essentially allows defendants to justify a murder.

Another difference that could lead defendants to not argue duress as their main defense happens if the person who is threatening the defendant didn't push them to commit an illicit act. In physical duress scenarios, people are usually pushed to commit a felony by their attackers. When that's not the case, then a criminal defense law firm in Sacramento may choose to argue the case another way.

What Could Someone Base Their Defense on Instead of Duress?

Duress is one of the most expansive laws out there. It covers situations where there's a fear of physical harm, and at the same time, it's a law that's meant to protect those who are being blackmailed. Sometimes, the duress law is even explained as a form of coercion.

Defendants usually seek to build their case around the duress law when the person who's "attacked" them has succeeded in forcing them to do something against their will. Suppose that a former spouse is asking for more money on the side apart from the child support payment with the threat of not allowing this person to see their child. This person gets themselves into trouble while trying to come up with the extra money.

When they are faced with trying to justify the crime they committed, they'll try and argue duress. If they don't go out and commit an illicit act in that scenario, they could just accuse their former spouse of extortion.

In most of the situations, though, where defendants are going to use duress as their main defense, it's because they've gone out and committed a crime. What this defense typically tries to argue is that there was some type of coercion involved. In other words, it was someone else who, through threats or other wrongful methods, forced this person to commit a crime.

Why Duress Is Sometimes Underutilized by Attorneys

Why Duress Is Sometimes Underutilized by Attorneys

Some experts have argued that many attorneys underutilize the duress defense. One of the reasons why some legal teams will avoid this defense is because it requires admitting to the crime. It can also be hard to conduct an investigation that will grant them enough evidence to build one of these cases.

Admitting to the crime while not being sure if there's a way to show that this person is the innocent party is a scary place to be in. Therefore, many attorneys would prefer to pursue other legal avenues before committing to this type of defense. Committing a crime under duress can be a justified defense, but it may be used as a last resort.

Final Thoughts

Any criminal act that is committed under duress or some type of coercion could essentially be justified. As recently mentioned, a duress defense strategy requires that the defendant admit to committing the crime. This makes certain people uneasy about using that particular law as their main line of defense.

It can be particularly difficult to implement this defense when there's a substantial lack of evidence. This is usually the case when it's a physical altercation that has taken place. Duress could be a more powerful defense in legal issues between former spouses.

In those situations, it could be easier to collect evidence and argue that undue influence led to a person committing a specific act.


bottom of page