If you happen upon a situation where it appears an officer’s in trouble, you may question if you can, or if you should, step up to help your local law enforcement. Even the best of intentions can be misperceived. For this reason, in such a situation, you should consider both legal requirements, as well as practical considerations.
Can You Defend a Third Party?
Let’s start with the law. In Pennsylvania, the law allows you to defend a third party. Unlike some other states, there is no requirement that you have a special relationship (such as a family relationship) with the person you are defending. This means, that if you should happen to come upon a police officer who is being threatened or in serious danger, generally speaking, you can help out.
But First, Answer These Questions
The law says that you can use deadly force to defend a third party if you can answer yes to three questions:
- Would the person you are defending be justified in using deadly force?
- If you were in the shoes of the person you are defending, would you be justified in using deadly force?
- Do you reasonably believe that the third party is facing imminent death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping, or rape?
These questions seem designed to make sure that neither you nor the party you are defending could stop the conflict using anything less than deadly force. Because police officers are, in most situations, the best-equipped individuals to stop a threat, it is unlikely that your intervention would be necessary unless the police officer was already in a bad situation.
Maybe the officer had been already physically compromised by an attack, and is being threatened by more harm. Perhaps, the police officer has been tackled by a criminal trying to get the officer’s weapon. In these situations, it is likely that you will be justified in acting and, through your attorney, you should be able to articulate your legal justification.
Concern # 1: Your Actions Misconstrued
Your attorney will help you explain why you meet all three parts of the justification. There are, however, some very real practical concerns. Chief among these concerns is, the possibility that backup units, other responding police officers or the officer you are helping, may misinterpret your part in the altercation. If you have the opportunity to do so, it may be prudent to ask the officer, who appears to be in trouble, if they need help. Otherwise, when the altercation ends, they may arrest you or worse, shoot you during the altercation, thinking that you were getting ready to interfere on behalf of the criminal.
Concern #2: High Probability of Mistakes
There’s also a very real concern should you use deadly force in any high-pressure situation such as this, that you could make a mistake. Make sure you have a clear shot if you plan on intervening with your firearm. Remember, even in a situation like this, you remain responsible for every bullet that leaves your gun. If you accidentally hit the police officer or another bystander, you may wind up in serious criminal trouble.
Concern #3: Lawsuits
Lastly, you need to worry about lawsuits. Unfortunately, the basic premise in this country is that anybody can sue anyone for anything. The person you act against or their family members may decide that, because you are not actually law enforcement, that you should be sued for your actions. In Pennsylvania, we have the benefit of a civil immunity clause. This means, that if you actually go through the criminal justice system and are found not criminally responsible, the person suing you will be barred from winning money from you in the civil system.
Unfortunately, this protection does not stop you from being sued. It just stops them from winning. This means, you still need your attorney to show up and defend the suit on your behalf.
If you have any other questions about defending a third party or coming to the aid of a police officer, call U.S. LawShield and ask to speak to an Independent Program Attorney.