What Is an Affirmative Defense?

What Is an Affirmative Defense?If you are charged with a criminal offense, the first step to defending yourself is getting a clear picture of the charges and the alleged facts. A criminal case can be defended in several ways.

If an affirmative defense is available, then it can excuse criminal liability. If you have legal questions, then it is important to speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately. 

What Must Be Proven in a Criminal Case

In a criminal case, a prosecutor has to prove a defendant’s guilt beyond any reasonable doubt. Crimes are made up of elements. To prove a criminal case, each element of a crime has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. 

These elements are attacked by criminal defense attorneys in different ways. Often, defending a case involves examining and questioning the evidence being presented by a prosecutor. A defense attorney can question any prosecution witnesses and question any physical evidence that is admitted.

A defendant can also put on their own witnesses and evidence in defending a criminal case, but don’t have to. It is the prosecutor’s burden to prove guilt, not the defendant’s to prove innocence.

How an Affirmative Defense Can Excuse Liability

There is one situation where the burden of proof shifts from the prosecutor to the defendant. This occurs when a defendant raises an affirmative defense. An affirmative defense allows a defendant to be excused from liability even if the prosecutor proves their case. There are certain situations that allow a defendant to act in a certain way. 

Potential affirmative defenses for California criminal cases include:

  • Duress
  • Intoxication
  • Insanity
  • Entrapment

These are some of the affirmative defenses that can be raised in a criminal trial to help avoid a criminal conviction. When making an affirmative defense claim, the burden is on the defendant to prove that the affirmative defense negates criminal responsibility.

This is different from a typical defense where the aim is to show that the prosecution did not prove their case. 

How Defendants Prove Affirmative Defenses

If a defendant wants to assert an affirmative defense, he or she must be able to admit evidence to help support their claim. If a jury believes that the defense has met its burden in proving the affirmative defense applies, then the defendant can avoid a conviction. These defenses are often used when it is clear that the defendant acted in the way alleged by the prosecutor.

If an individual is charged with bank robbery along with other people, then duress can be a defense if the individual was forced to comply with the bank robbery due to a threat of harm. If a defendant can demonstrate at trial how they were under duress, then the jury can properly acquit the individual of bank robbery. This holds true even if the prosecutor proved that the individual helped with the bank robbery. 

If an individual is charged with selling drugs, then entrapment can be a defense if the police were the main cause and reason for why the defendant was involved in drugs in the first place. If the police formulate a criminal plan or activity and coerce someone to join the plan, then the police can be responsible for entrapment. This would be a complete defense to criminal charges.

What About Self-Defense?

Self-defense is a defense that can excuse liability even if the prosecutor proves the elements of the crimes charged. Self-defense, however, is not an affirmative defense because the burden of proof always stays on the prosecutor in a self-defense claim. When a self-defense claim is raised by the defense, then the prosecutor has an additional burden. 

Under California law, once a self-defense claim is raised, a prosecutor has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense to secure a conviction. This makes self-defense claims among the most defense-friendly in criminal law. 

Even though you can avoid criminal liability with a self-defense claim, it is not an affirmative defense because the burden of proof stays on the prosecutor the whole way through the case.