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How Does the Defense of Duress Work in Pennsylvania?

December 07, 2020

By Van Der Veen, Hartshorn, and Levin

It was in late October when a federal appeals court decided not to overturn a decision made in a burglary case. The defendant claimed that he allowed his friends to use his sister’s car without knowing they were going to use it in the commission of a crime. His friends broke into a pharmacy, stealing a number of medications containing codeine, as well as a gun shop, where they stole a number of firearms. The defendant told the court his friends threatened him with violence if he did not help them.

The court rejected the man’s claims, stating that he had at least two opportunities to escape and report the crimes. Still, it raises the question of using the defense of duress in criminal cases, which is a defense that is largely misunderstood.

What is Duress?

The defense of duress is used in cases that involve a defendant that was threatened with force or violence if they refused to commit a crime. In circumstances that involve duress, the court may determine that the accused did not have the free will to consent to committing a crime and so, they should not be held legally responsible for their actions. The defense of duress has three basic elements, which are as follows:

  • Threat of harm: To use the defense of duress successfully, the accused must have experienced significant bodily harm, or the threat of harm. A defendant may face the threat of harm to themselves or to a close family member. Either words or actions can constitute a threat of bodily harm. In order to use the defense of duress, the threat of harm must also be imminent.
  • Reasonable fear: Unfortunately, the threat of harm is not enough when using the defense of duress. The threat has to result in reasonable fear. To determine if there was reasonable fear, a court will consider whether another person would have felt the same type of fear the defendant is claiming.
  • No means of escape: Duress only applies to criminal cases if the defendant had no reasonable means of escape. When a person could leave the situation, they could have also avoided the threat and the reasonable fear that resulted from it.

Even when a defendant’s case meets all of these elements, duress still may not apply.

Exceptions to the Defense of Duress

The defense of duress has two main exceptions. The first is when the defendant recklessly placed themselves in a situation where they would be subject to duress, or if the person negligently placed himself in a situation.

The second exception is any case that involves murder. Due to the fact that taking another person’s life is such a serious offense, duress is usually not applicable in these cases.

Need a Defense? Our Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Lawyers can Provide It

Duress is a valid defense in many criminal cases, but it is just one of many. If you have been charged with a crime and want to give yourself the best chance of beating the charges, call our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers at van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim. After reviewing the facts of your case, we will advise you of your options and create the solid defense you need. Call us today at (215) 486-0123 or contact us online to schedule a consultation with one of our skilled attorneys.



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