“It’s never right to hit a girl,” my fourth grade teacher said as she dragged me to the principal’s office. Priscilla Gutierez had just gouged me with her fingernails because I would not get off the swing she wanted. Her nails were cutting deeply into my arm, and she had no intention of letting go, so I punched her, once, on the shoulder.
Priscilla had attacked me and her nails had left four bloody cuts on my arm. I wear the scars to this day. Nonetheless, under the gender rules of the 1950’s, there was no issue of self defense. I hit a girl; therefore, I was wrong.
The rules certainly have changed. When Shidea Lane got into a fight with RTA driver Artis Hughes, she may have assumed that he would not hit her because she was a woman, even when she attacked him and spit on him. She certainly did not expect Hughes to land a professional-grade uppercut to her jaw.
The cell phone videos of the incident have become an internet sensation. The response has been largely in favor of Hughes, with many viewers commenting that Lane got what she deserved. For it’s part, the RTA has called Hughes’s actions “totally unacceptable,” and has suspended Hughes pending an investigation.
Whether you believe that Hughes was right or wrong, from a criminal law standpoint the issue is whether he acted in self defense. It might seem obvious that Hughes was defending himself, but the question is not that simple.
In legal terms, self defense is known as a “privilege.” Normally, you cannot strike another person. But when you are being attacked, you have the privilege of defending yourself. Like any privilege, though, self defense can be abused. Using excessive force, even when you are defending yourself, goes beyond the limits of the privilege.
To determine whether a person used excessive force, the first question is what kind of force was involved. Using deadly force has its own special rules, one of which is the “castle doctrine” which I discussed in a previous posting. With non-deadly force, the rules are not quite as strict. For one thing, you never have to retreat to avoid using non-deadly force.
With non-deadly force, you may use whatever force is necessary to protect yourself whenever you reasonably believe you are in danger. You do not even have to wait for the other person to attack you, if you reasonably believe she is about to do so.
However, even if you need to defend yourself, your response has to fit the threat. If you are attacked by a large man with a knife, you can defend yourself using much more force than you would use if a little old lady were hitting you with her purse.
“Excessive force” means force that is grossly disproportionate to the threat that you face. In one case, a man knocked a woman to the ground, scraping her knee. She responded by stabbing him 27 times with a butcher knife. The court called this excessive.
In another case, a man threatened the defendant with a metal bar. The defendant hit him in the face three times At the defendant’s trial for assault and battery, the judge ruled that the defendant had used excessive force, because one punch would have been enough.
The Ohio Supreme Court disagreed and reversed the conviction. It decided that three punches were not grossly disproportionate to the threat, even though they might have been a little more than absolutely necessary.
So what about RTA driver Hughes? You could certainly argue that hitting a much smaller woman with a roundhouse punch was excessive, given the fact that she posed no real threat of serious harm to him.
On the other hand, can you really say that the punch was grossly disproportionate to the threat? Remember, Lane came back and attacked Hughes again, even after being hit.
Apparently, the punch was not enough to end the attack, so Hughes may have a good argument that the punch was not excessive. It will be interesting to see if he is even prosecuted.
Given the fact that Hughes was driving a public bus, and given the fact that he was much larger than Lane, he certainly could have handled the situation better. Whether the RTA should keep Hughes as a tough question. Legally, though, he may actually have been within his rights when he hit Lane.
Thinking back, it probably would have been wrong for me to use an uppercut on Priscilla Gutierez. But I still think I was entitled to more self-defense than just saying “OUCH!” Maybe I should have appealed the teacher’s decision.
Have a question or a suggestion for a topic? Email dspirgen@SpirgenLawFirm.com.
Patch posts are general discussions and should not be used as advice on any specific legal matter. If you need legal advice on a particular situation, please consult an attorney.