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UPDATED: April 28, 2009 NO. 17 APR. 30, 2009
Are There Limits to Self-Defense?



A Chinese court has ruled that a woman is not guilty of murder and acted in self-defense when she chased down robbers with her car before driving into them, leaving one dead and one injured.

Two robbers followed a woman surnamed Long from her parking one early morning last July in Shunde District of Foshan City, southern Guangdong Province. As Long waited for a traffic light on the road, they smashed her car window and snatched a handbag that contained more than 80,000 yuan ($11,720) in cash. The robbers then attempted to escape by jumping on a motorbike driven by a third accomplice who was waiting nearby. Long immediately gave chase.

The Foshan Intermediate People's Court ruled this March that although the robbers were trying to escape, they were still within sight of the victim, and thus the court considered the robbery was still in progress. They ruled that Long's chase and subsequent crashing into the motorcycle was a case of justifiable defense. The court also sentenced the two surviving robbers to 11-12 years' prison time plus fines.

The ruling has, however, sparked controversy. Most praised Long for her bravery, while others argued that violence should not be stopped using counter-violence. Long's supporters responded that perhaps she had merely wanted to recover her money, and never intended to hurt or even kill anyone.

Others asked how one defines the meaning of "justifiable defense." The establishment of justifiable defense is preconditioned by several technical factors, including when the process of crime ends and if the way that victims fight back for self-protection is reasonable and necessary. As far as this case is concerned, is knocking over the motorcycle the only way that Long could have prevented a further crime? If not, Long would face charges of excessive self-defense, because criminals enjoy the same rights of life and health other citizens do, and the punishment of robbery is not as severe as the death penalty.

Within her rights

Yang Zhizhu (www.southcn.com): The court said Long's acts were justified because the robbers' escape was part of the crime.

After crashing into the motorcycle, Long did not do any further harm against the injured robbers, but called the police. Therefore, her action of defense is justifiable and restrained. She wanted to stop the crime, instead of hurting anyone.

When victims have only one way to protect themselves or safeguard their rights, they should use it for justifiable defense.

If more victims are fearless like Long in fighting against criminals, they will not only safeguard their own lawful interests but also boost public order, which will help reduce crimes.

Yang Tao (www.jxcn.cn): If Long had a better way to stop this robbery, she would not have thought of chasing the robbers in her car to recover the money by herself. Long's case, one of justifiable self-defense, will be a major reference for similar cases in the province.

Cases of justifiable self-defense are, in fact common when state power and police protection cannot reach those in danger. But before the implementation of the revised Criminal Law in 1997, the definition of justifiable defense was not clear. Some victims were therefore prosecuted on charges of excessive defense. With victims afraid of being too aggressive in defending themselves, crimes were rampant. After the new Criminal Law took effect, the definition of justifiable defense is largely expanded, giving victims more rights to better defend their interests. According to the 1997 edition of the Criminal Law, an act to defend oneself against an ongoing assault, murder, robbery, rape, kidnapping and other crime of a violent nature that seriously endangers one's personal safety is a justifiable defense, and the victims involved shall not bear criminal liabilities when striking back.

Though there were calls that Long should be accused of an excessive defense due to the collateral damage, because she was attacked by robbers, she was clearly exempted from legal liabilities according to the law.

Liang Derong (Xinmin Evening News): It is obvious that to escape from the scene is part of the crime, during which victims are justified to take measures for self-defense. Robbery falls into the category of felony, which is heavily punished by criminal laws. Long's case sets a good example for other courts in ruling similar cases.

Excessive force

Zhang Junxing (www.cnhubei.com): To judge whether Long is justified or not, one must know what constitutes justifiable defense. The court, which sought a clarification of this, considered her pursuit of the robbers the only measure she could have taken to recover her money at that moment. But legal theories traditionally do not see criminals' escapes as part of crimes.

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