Oct 23, 2020

THE LIFE OF THE LAW: In Defense of Self-Defense

While only a court of justice can definitively settle this issue after a thorough study of the facts and scrutiny of the evidence, it is opportune to take a closer look at the nature of “Self-Defense” widely considered as a possible justification for the police officer.

Recently, the nation was rocked by the news of the gunning down of a former military man, Winston Ragos. Social media teemed with sympathy and outrage for the senseless loss of a soldier who, it is said, was afflicted with mental illness. Worse, his death came at the hands of a supposed comrade, a police officer, who deemed him in violation of the Enhanced Community Quarantine.

The circumstances surrounding the death of Ragos sparked spirited debates online among lawyers, law students, and ordinary netizens. As expected, a multitude strongly condemned the killing, considering it as Murder, plain and simple. While for others, the police officer was justified in using force as he was merely acting in self-defense when Ragos appeared to be drawing something from his bag.

While only a court of justice can definitively settle this issue after a thorough study of the facts and scrutiny of the evidence, it is opportune to take a closer look at the nature of “Self-Defense” widely considered as a possible justification for the police officer.

Under the Revised Penal Code, the law in which crimes are defined and their penalties are fixed, “Self-Defense” is considered as a “Justifying Circumstance”.

The law states that those who act “in defense of his person or rights”, “do not incur criminal liability.” (Art. 11, RPC)

Simply put, a person who acts in self-defense does not commit a crime, as that act is considered lawful. Thus, a person who picks up a rock to defend himself during an attack by someone who is armed does not commit a crime if the attacker is seriously injured, or even killed as consequence, the act is justified as self-defense.

A legal defense and concept present in most penal systems, self-defense is rooted in a person’s inherent inclination to enjoy and protect one’s right to life. It is “based on that impulse of self-preservation born to man and part of his nature as a human being”. (Castañares vs. Court of Appeals) In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas explains that “since one’s intention is to save one’s own life, [it] is not unlawful, seeing that it is natural…”.

However, not every act claimed as self-defense will necessarily qualify as a justifying circumstance that would shield a person from criminal liability. The law requires these three essential conditions to be present for self-defense to be appreciated: first, “unlawful aggression”; second, “reasonable necessity of the means employed to prevent or repel” the unlawful aggression; third, “lack of sufficient provocation on the part of the person defending himself.” (Art. 11, RPC).

The first condition sine qua non is “unlawful aggression”, described by the Supreme Court as “equivalent to an assault or at least threatened assault of an immediate and imminent kind.” (People vs. Alconga). Unlawful aggression must pose a “real danger to life or personal safety.” (People vs Cagalingan)

The unlawful aggression must originate from a person other than the one making the claim for self-defense. It must involve “actual physical force or with actual use of weapon,” (People vs. Crisostomo) and not merely “a threatening or intimidating attitude.” (People vs. Pasco)

In the previous example, the unlawful aggression must come from the attacker who employed actual force first, and not from the one who picked up the rock, who merely acted to safeguard his life lest it be placed in jeopardy.

There can be no self-defense without unlawful aggression giving rise to the peril to life or limb.

Next, the law requires “reasonable necessity of the means employed to prevent or repel” the unlawful aggression. Justice Luis B. Reyes expounds that both the course of action taken and the means employed by the person making the defense must be reasonably necessary.

In other words, the method and means taken up to defend one’s self must be commensurate to the circumstances surrounding the attack. These circumstances include “the nature and quality of the weapon used by the aggressor, his physical condition, character, size, and other circumstances, and those of the person defending himself, and also the place and occasion of the assault.” (People vs. Padua)

Going back to the example, if the attacker was armed, or otherwise of greater physical condition or strength, then the use of the rock to repel or prevent the unlawful aggression is reasonable and necessary.

Aquinas sums it best with this quote from jurists in his time: “it is lawful to repel force by force, provided one does not exceed the limits of a blameless defense”.

Last, for there to be self-defense, there must be a “lack of sufficient provocation on the part of the person defending himself.” (Art. 11, RPC)

Justice Reyes explains that for an act to be considered justified as self-defense, “the one defending himself must not have given cause for the aggression by his unjust conduct or by inciting or provoking the assailant”. In short, the person defending himself must be free from fault and without participation significant to stir the aggression.

In the example, if the person who used the rock did not commit any prior unjust act that would trigger the attack, then this third requisite is present.

In the end, the law has placed the burden of proof upon the person who acted in self-defense to unequivocally show the presence of these three requisites in order to avail its benefit of freedom from criminal liability.
As such, the police officer has the tall order of persuading the court that Ragos was an unlawful aggressor, that pulling the trigger was reasonably necessary, and that he did not provoke the fallen soldier to perpetrate the alleged attack.

One thing requires no proof, however, that the right to life is sacrosanct and occupies a paramount place on the hierarchy of liberties. Any loss and unjust deprivation of which is a grave affront to humanity and a cry to heaven for justice.

For comments, suggestions, or legal questions, feel free to contact me through joelarzagalaw@gmail.com

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