Duress as a Defense

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 What Does Duress Mean?

Duress is when a person is forced to act against their free will by threat of force or actual force and violence. This is generally crime in many instances and can also apply as a defense to certain legal violations. 

For instance, if a person is charged with a crime or violation, then they may raise duress as a defense and claim that they may not be held liable for their actions. This because the fact they were under duress caused them to commit the crime or violation. Thus, they may actually be admitting to the act, but they should not be held liable because they had no choice but to do the act. 

In civil court of law, you also have a right to raise a duress defense if force or violence was used to compel you to enter into a contract, or to break one.

What are the Requirements for Using Duress as a Defense?

Duress is a often defense used to justify an illegal act. A defendant who claims they acted under duress must typically show the following elements:

  1. They were in immediate danger that could possibly result in death or serious bodily harm;
  2. They were fearful that the person would actually cause them such harm; and
  3. There was no other reasonable way to avoid the potential harm other than committing the illegal act.

Thus, for instance, if a person states, “I’m going to punch you tomorrow if you don’t steal this jacket for me,” it might not be possible to raise a duress defense if the jacket is actually stolen. This is because the threat of harm might not be immediate enough, nor serious enough to be considered as a duress situation.

However, the circumstances of the duress will always be looked at by a case-by-case basis. The requirements for duress are broad, on purpose, to allow for different circumstances to qualify. While there is flexibility in the standards for a defense of duress, it still requires that the defendant behaved reasonably.

For example, if a criminal jumped into the defendant’s car and threatened them with a plastic, toy knife (brightly colored and clearly looks like a toy), then the defendant could not reasonably use duress as a defense. Even if they were very scared, the truth is that there was no actual physical threat even if the criminal was very menacing. 

What are Some Examples of Duress?

Duress can come in many forms and can arise in many different situations. Some of these may include:

  • A person being held at gunpoint and forced to drive their car over the speed limit;
  • A person being held at knife point and forced to steal an item from a store or rob a person;
  • Threatening to strike someone if they do not perform some sort of illegal act;
  • Use of economic pressure or threats to accomplish something with the person; and
  • Various other forms of conduct.

Economic pressure can be an actual threat, like threatening to empty the defendant’s bank account and they have the power to do it. 

Can Duress Be Used as a Defense for Murder Charges?

Generally speaking, most state criminal laws do not allow a person to use duress as a defense for murder. However, some states may allow a duress defense to reduce a murder charge to a lesser crime, such as manslaughter.

For the charge of manslaughter, the “duress” would be more appropriately called “provocation.” This is where a person is provoked into killing another person due to the heat of passion. However this requires certain elements to exist, which can sometimes different from duress.

Ultimately, the criminal system is hesitant to say that someone can use duress as a defense to murder, as it would mean that someone can be coerced/forced into killing another person.  

How Does Duress Apply to Contracts?

Under civil contract law, there are two types of duress. The first is typically referred to as physical duress. An example of this serious form of duress would be forcing someone to sign a contract under gunpoint. Contracts formed under physical duress conditions are void.

The second form of contract duress is generally referred to as economic duress. This can happen for instance if a person would face complete financial ruin unless they agreed to sign the contract. 

These contracts are considered voidable rather than void, because a person ultimately has a choice to honor the contract or not. The elements for economic duress are usually listed as follows:

  1. There is an on-going contract relations between the plaintiff and defendant;
  2. The defendant threatens to terminate the existing contract relationship; and
  3. The plaintiff was under threat to accept the defendant’s terms and signs the contract.

In order to use the defense of economic duress, the plaintiff should be prepared to show that their situation meets these elements. Laws regarding economic duress and contracts may vary from state to state. You may need to consult with a lawyer if you have any type of question regarding the duress laws in your state. 

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help Raising Duress as a Defense?

If you have been accused of any type of crime and believe you have a duress defense, then you should consult the advice of a criminal defense lawyer in your area. A duress defense can often reduce any charges you might face, and in many cases, it can be a complete defense. 

If you are facing a civil lawsuit for breach of contract and believe duress was used in signing the contract, then you will want to reach out to a lawyer in your area who can help you navigate the entire process.

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