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What Is Reasonable Force?

Reasonable force is the appropriate amount of force needed to protect oneself or another person.
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  • Written By: Amanda Dean
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 01 October 2014
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Reasonable force, also known as legal force, is the appropriate amount of force necessary for a person to protect himself, another person, or his property from harm. Appropriate force should not exceed the amount of force necessary in a given situation as determined by a reasonable and objective observer. Reasonable force, up to and including lethal force, can be used as a defense in court.

Usually a legal term used in court cases where someone has been injured or killed as a result of force, reasonable force has varied definitions across jurisdictions, states, and countries. It is generally accepted in the United States to include death or great bodily harm if the person feels he must act to prevent a felonious assault or to protect his own life. Reasonable force may be used to keep a perpetrator from entering one's home if he believes the intruder has felonious intent.

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A person must use his best judgment when determining the amount of force necessary for protection. More force is tolerated when someone is protecting human life than physical property, though a person can be charged with excessive force if his response is more extreme than the perceived danger. Force may only be used at the time of the crime, and people are not allowed to act in retaliation after the event. When the possibility of harm is imminent, it may be difficult to focus on the appropriate amount of force. Courts may take this into consideration when trying someone who is accused of excessive force.

Reasonable force is a major concern with law enforcement. Police are trained to use their best judgment when determining the amount of force necessary to stop or apprehend a suspect. Law enforcement officers are encouraged to use minimal force as appropriate based on situational factors such as imminent danger and the amount of resistance from the suspect.

Officers have many levels of force they can use. In general, they will ask a perpetrator for compliance, then tell a suspect how to behave during apprehension. If verbal commands do not work, they may be forced to restrain the perpetrator of a crime. Many police officers carry an electronic control device to deliver a non-lethal shock that incapacitates an uncooperative and dangerous suspect. Only in extreme cases are firearms drawn.

The use of force among police officers has drawn much media attention in the US. In some cases, the courts favor the police officers, stating that they have exercised good decision-making during tense situations and have used reasonable force to incapacitate or apprehend a suspect. Cases of excessive force are sometimes a source of social unrest when they are subject to media attention, as civilians get upset when a member of their community has been attacked, injured or killed by a police officer.

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