Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"But He Started It!" - Self-Defense Instruction Doesn't Always Apply

"The dog ate my homework."

"I only had two beers."

"I did not have sexual relations with that woman."

"Okay, even if I did, it was consensual."

"But he started it!" - Self-defense is one of the most commonly used defenses in criminal law.  Many times, this defense has merit, but sometimes (especially in homicide cases) it is a lame attempt to shift the attention of the jury from the acts of the obviously culpable defendant to the victim (who is usually a questionable character himself).  Can any defendant claim self-defense?  Sure, if the issue is raised by the evidence.  Are there limits to a defendant's right to a self-defense jury instruction?  You bet.

One of those limitations is found in section 9.31(b)(5) of the Texas Penal Code, which provides:
The use of force against another is not justified if the actor sought an explanation from or a discussion with the other person concerning the actor's differences with the other person while the actor was... [unlawfully] carrying a weapon.
What exactly does "concerning the actor's differences with the other person" mean in the legal sense?  This issue was recently addressed by the 14th District Court of Appeals (Houston) in Hernandez v. State, in which the court dusted off the ole' Webster's dictionary and explained:
The term "differences" is not defined in the statute. Under the canons of statutory construction, we are to construe a statute according to its plain language. Edwards v. State, 273 S.W.3d 919, 921 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2009, no pet.). In determining the plain meaning of the language of a statute, "[w]ords and phrases shall be read in context and construed according to the rules of grammar and common usage." Tex. Gov’t Code Ann. § 311.011(a) (Vernon 2005). The plain meaning of "differences" is a "disagreement of opinion," or "an instance of disagreement or a point upon which there is disagreement." Webster’s Third Int’l Dictionary 629 (1993) (third definition of "difference").
In Hernandez, because the defendant, while unlawfully carrying a weapon, sought out the victim to discuss a contentious matter ("differences"), the defendant was not entitled to a jury instruction on self-defense when he was later charged with the murder of the victim.  Murder conviction and life sentence affirmed.