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Imminent danger refers to an immediate threat to life, which can occur under many different circumstances. In the legal context, there are multiple ways in which this term is interpreted or used, and it may have synonyms like "clear and present danger" or "imminent hazard or threat". Several contexts may be important to consider when understanding the definition and these include how the term is interpreted in issues of self-defense or defense of others, in situations where environmental hazards are life-threatening, and in terms of free speech laws.
Many legal codes define self-defense or defense of others as non-criminal provided an imminent danger existed at the time such actions took place, or sometimes where it was reasonable to assume a danger. In the latter, a policeman who shoots someone waving a toy gun can defend himself from criminal charges by declaring that he believed himself to be in danger. Provided the toy gun looked fairly real, this is likely to be an acceptable defense.
The average citizen is also permitted freedom to attack and use lethal force on a person whose behavior is life-threatening or threatening to the life of someone nearby. The danger has to be imminent, or just about to occur. Someone who shouts, “I’m going to kill you,” and starts walking away cannot be attacked with lethal force. The threat isn’t imminent, or it would at least be hard to make a suitable defense that an immediate threat was present.
Another group of people who assess imminent danger are social workers and others in the juvenile court systems. They may be empowered to remove children from homes if they feel there is real threat to a child remaining in a home. Social workers must be able to back up their sense that danger exists to the child with evidence, such as former abuse.
Occupational safety laws use the term imminent danger to instruct workers how to act if something in the factory environment poses an immediate threat to workers or others. Anything like this must be reported, and failing to report such matters could violate the law.
"Clear and present danger" is sometimes used to discuss the behavior of people who may cause risk or harm through exercising free speech. The classic example of this is shouting “Fire,” in a crowded theater, which can cause a panic. In other cases, governments have overridden expression of free speech, and constitutional rights, because they believe that expression puts a country at imminent risk. This is controversial because it can be used to silence critics or to forbid investigative journalism.
In most cases, people making the claim of imminent danger are saying a situation was life threatening to self or others. It therefore overrides normal laws that apply, allowing for extreme measures to be taken. These measures, in light of the danger, appeared logical, emboldening a person to act outside of the law for the protection of self or others.
The definition of imminent danger in the criminal law context varies wildly from state to state. For example, some states simply require someone to reasonably believe he or she is in imminent danger to use lethal force in a self defense context. Other states require a bit more -- a person must be unable to flee to safety before they can use self defense.