The Defense of Duress: When You Were Coerced to Commit a CrimeWhat does it mean to act out in response to duress and is it a successful defense to raise in a criminal case? First, let’s understand the legal definition. Duress is the use of force or coercion to get someone to act contrary to his or her intent. It may also include the use of false imprisonment, threats, or psychological pressure to compel a person to go against his or her wishes. It is common for a defendant to claim duress when defending his or her actions in a criminal prosecution. The defendant often argues that he or she would not have taken part in the crime had they not been forced or coerced to do so. It can be so strong that the defendant feared for his or her own safety had they not took part in the crime.

Understanding Duress
Typically, a criminal defense attorney is most successful raising the defense of duress on behalf of his or her client if evidence exists proving excessive force was used to get the defendant to commit the crime. If the duress would have driven a reasonable person to commit the crime, too, the defense of duress is beneficial to use in court. For example, if an individual holds a gun to someone else’s head, demanding they help them break the law, a reasonable person most likely would obey his or her orders to save their own life. In this case, the defense, also known as the defense of coercion, would be appropriate. Three elements should be present to claim duress. To use the defense of duress in court the defendant must have felt an immediate threat of serious injury or death; the defendant’s fear was real in light of the threat used; and the defendant did not have a chance to escape the coercion, thus committed the crime.

The Threat Must Be Immediate
To use this defense, the threat used must have been real and immediate and continuous. The threat must have been explained in words or through actions, such as pointing a gun at one’s head. For duress as a defense to work, the threat could not be one made in the past or for the future. It is important to note, however, that duress also can be a successful defense if the threat was real and immediate to another person. For example, if the defendant believed his spouse or his or her child were in present danger of physical harm or death, then he or she can make the claim. One must also understand that the defense of duress most likely will not be successful for the defendant if he or she willingly put him or herself in the dangerous situation in the first place.

California Penal Code 26
In the State of California, committing a crime due to the use of force and fear of immediate danger is excusable under California Penal Code 26. This law allows one’s criminal conduct to go unpunished if the threat is proved, because it was the actions of someone else that led the person to do the unlawful act. However, one can’t claim duress as an excuse for committing murder, under California law, unless it was done in self-defense.