If you are facing criminal charges due to being coerced, threatened, or forced into committing an offense against your will, you may have a legitimate defense of coercion or duress. Your defense lawyer may be able to have the charges dropped, or at the very least, have the penalties reduced if they can demonstrate that the facts of your case legally constitute acting under pressure or coercion.

To effectively employ a duress defense, it is necessary to demonstrate that you were threatened with harm if you refrained from committing an illegal act and that you genuinely believed your life would be in immediate danger if you did not carry out the criminal act. This article explores how you can potentially have criminal charges against you dropped by utilizing a duress defense.

An Overview of the Duress Defense Under California Law

California recognizes the defense of duress. To effectively employ this defense, you must demonstrate that:

  • If you refused to carry out the illegal act, you felt an immediate risk of losing your life.
  • Someone threatened to harm you if you didn't comply.

It is important to remember that to employ this defense, you must have had a reasonable perception that your life was already in imminent danger. Even the possibility of an injury occurring in the future can trigger this reaction. One of the key elements is that there should have been an immediate and impending risk to life.

According to California state law, the defense of duress is not considered a valid defense in murder prosecutions. However, if you can provide evidence that you committed an additional offense while under pressure, you could be able to use duress as a defense against a felony murder allegation.

Elements To Be Proved

If you are facing threats or coercion from another person, you may be able to use duress as a legal defense under California law to argue that you were forced to commit an illegal act. To successfully demonstrate duress, you often need to establish the following elements:

  • Someone threatened you with immediate death or severe physical harm.
  • Your fear of the individual or a third party carrying out the threat was legitimate and reasonable. If you hadn't committed the illegal act, you would have had no reasonable chance or escape route from the harm that was being threatened.

Keep in mind that it is your responsibility to demonstrate that you were under duress.

Imminent Danger

For something to be considered a danger within the context of this defense, it must pose an immediate and present risk. Additionally, the danger must be genuine and relevant to the current moment. None of the following reasons will be useful for the defense:

  • There is a possibility of developing further injuries in the years to come.
  • Repeated threats of physical harm from the past.

As an additional point of interest, an urgent threat can be communicated verbally or physically, either directly or indirectly, through both of these means.


If you can demonstrate a reasonable fear of bodily harm from another person, you can successfully defend yourself with the claim of duress. Presenting evidence that a reasonable person would have experienced the same level of terror in the same situation is one way to prove this. When determining liability for your actions, a judge or jury will consider all the circumstances surrounding the case.

Burden of Proof

It is your responsibility to provide evidence that supports each component of the duress defense. However, you are not required to prove that the elements are true. Instead, your goal is to create a "reasonable doubt" regarding the likelihood that each component was present in the first scenario.

While it is true that doing something wrong does not necessarily make you a perpetrator, there are cases where this is not applicable. Mens rea, which refers to having a responsible state of mind, is typically required for an act to be considered illegal.

Duress is a solid defense tactic, as it reveals that you were coerced into committing a crime by another party, demonstrating that you had no intention of breaking the law. To determine the likelihood of coercion, all you need to do is pose a reasonable inquiry to the members of the jury. As a result, the prosecution is required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt all the elements that constitute a crime, including the intent to commit a crime.

No Way Out

The majority of states stipulate that the defense of duress cannot be used unless there is no reasonable way to avoid the threatened harm. If you had a reasonable option to avoid committing the crime, the duress defense is typically ineffective.

Limitations of the Duress Defense

On the other hand, the duress defense has certain restrictions. Certain offenses are not eligible for the duress or compulsion defenses. For example, in most cases, it is not a valid defense against charges of murder. If someone accuses you of killing your attacker out of fear for your life, you would not argue that you were under duress. Instead, you would assert that you acted in self-defense.

Under the law, the defense of duress or coercion is only applicable in situations where there is a genuine risk of death or significant physical harm. If you committed a crime because someone threatened to expose unfavorable information about you, the court is likely to reject the defense of duress as a valid argument.

As a general rule, duress or coercion does not serve as a defense if an individual willingly puts themselves in danger. For example, if you knowingly joined a well-known criminal gang and later committed a crime under their supervision, the argument of duress or compulsion is unlikely to apply to your situation.

The Role of Coercion and Duress in Committing a Crime

External pressures or threats, especially those that involve the risk of bodily harm or death, often serve as strong motivators for individuals to engage in criminally motivated behavior. A prime example of this is when a person receives threats of physical assault if they refuse to participate in a bank heist.

In this particular scenario, the threat of physical harm would likely be considered coercion. If the risk had not been present, the individual would not have chosen to commit the offense. Similarly, when someone is a member of a dangerous criminal gang or is facing wrongful incarceration, they may feel compelled to engage in further criminal activities.

Other Legal Defenses Related To Duress Defenses

Regarding duress, there are two defenses. These include the following:

Necessity Defense

The defense of necessity allows you to absolve yourself of responsibility by demonstrating that you committed the crime out of necessity. This could be:

  • To prevent something worse from happening.
  • To avoid getting into a dangerous situation.

For example, let's imagine a situation where you drive someone to the hospital after a hit-and-run incident to save them from a serious medical emergency. Despite the relationship between necessity and duress, there are two clear distinctions between these defenses.

These are the following:

  1. To qualify for the necessity defense, the threatened damage doesn't need to occur immediately. Even if you have time to assess the potential harm, you can still assert the defense.
  2. To establish a reasonable doubt regarding the defense's elements in cases involving coercion, it is necessary to present compelling evidence. However, when it comes to the necessity of defense, each aspect must be established using a preponderance of the evidence.


It is legitimate to contest a crime using self-defense if you can demonstrate the following factors:

  • You had a legitimate fear that you would suffer physical injury.
  • Force was necessary to put an end to the threat.

However, it is important to remember that to employ this argument, you should have only used as much force as was reasonably necessary in the given situation.

Duress and self-defense are related because both can be applicable when attempting to escape a situation of duress. For example, if someone threatens to shoot you while holding a pistol to your head unless you commit a crime, you may have a defense of duress in this case. However, self-defense would apply if you managed to struggle with the person threatening you, grab a pistol, and use it to defend yourself by shooting them.

Can I Use This Defense In a Civil Case?

In certain civil cases, particularly those involving contract laws, duress can be considered a valid defense. To establish this defense, you would need to demonstrate that you:

  • Participated in a commercial deal.
  • Committed the crime out of fear of financial ruin, simply because someone else had done so.

If the defense is successful, it aims to nullify or reverse the business deal in which you participated. The term "economic duress" is commonly used to describe the duress defense in civil cases.

What Are the Benefits of Trying to Get the Accusations Against You Dropped?

If you successfully have your charges dismissed, you will not only save money on legal expenses or fines, but you will also avoid the possibility of obtaining or adding to a criminal record. Additionally, you can avoid spending time in jail and protect your reputation.

One of the biggest advantages of having your allegations dropped is that you won't have a criminal record. Having a criminal record can have numerous negative effects on both your professional and personal lives, and sometimes even a misdemeanor can cause significant consequences.

Individuals with prior criminal convictions are likely to face the following consequences:

  • Experiencing a loss of job and/or facing challenges in finding new employment opportunities.
  • Losing or encountering difficulties in obtaining security clearances or professional licenses.
  • Having trouble getting loans, grants, or scholarships.
  • Not being able to purchase or own a gun.

The most effective way to prevent negative consequences is to have your charges dropped before your court appearance, thereby maintaining a clean record. This approach guarantees a favorable outcome and safeguards your reputation.

How a Criminal Defense Attorney Can Assist

Criminal charges often lead to severe punishments, with convictions carrying life-altering consequences such as hefty fines and imprisonment. However, by enlisting the services of a criminal defense lawyer, you can protect your rights and potentially reduce the severity of your sentence. These attorneys act as your representatives, defenders, and advisors throughout the criminal prosecution process.

It is crucial to contact an attorney promptly after being charged or arrested to increase your chances of avoiding severe punishments. There are several advantages to hiring a defense lawyer, including the following:

Investigate the Situation

Your defense lawyer can thoroughly investigate your case to identify any potential openings that can prevent a conviction or lead to a reduced sentence. This involves examining the evidence, speaking with the police and witnesses, and gathering any relevant data related to the case. Additionally, the lawyer investigates the prosecution's case to identify ways to strengthen your defense.

Provide an Objective Viewpoint

Defendants often have a distorted perception of the options available to them. They may either be preparing for a severe penalty or hoping for an unlikely outcome. Dealing with criminal accusations can often lead to misjudgments of the circumstances. However, a criminal defense lawyer possesses a deep understanding of how the law applies to your specific situation.

By providing a thorough consultation, a lawyer can assist you in making informed decisions and gaining a clear understanding of what to expect. This is especially helpful as legal professionals can provide an unbiased assessment of your case, which can greatly influence decision-making.

Find a Los Angeles Defense Attorney Near Me

If you have been accused of breaking the law due to coercion by someone else, it is crucial to immediately hire an experienced criminal defense lawyer. At the Law Office of Sara L. Caplan in Los Angeles, we have a team of trained criminal law professionals who specialize in proving affirmative defense claims through a preponderance of the evidence.

Feel free to call our office at 310-550-5877. We would be delighted to evaluate your case and address any legal questions you may have during a complimentary initial consultation.