Parsing the Reasonable Person: The Case of Self-Defense

American Journal of Criminal Law 39 (3):101-120 (2012)
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Mistakes are a fact of life, and the criminal law is sadly no exception to the rule. Wrongful convictions are rightfully abhorred, and false acquittals can likewise inspire outrage. In these cases, we implicitly draw a distinction between a court’s finding and a defendant’s actual guilt or innocence. These are intuitive concepts, but as this paper aims to show, contemporary use of the reasonable person standard in the law of self-defense muddles them. Ordinarily, we can distinguish between a person's material guilt or innocence and his juridical guilt or innocence. Someone is materially guilty if his actions in fact matched the conduct proscribed by the penal law. Someone is juridically guilty if he is found guilty by a tribunal, i.e., convicted by a judge or jury. When a tribunal convicts a innocent person or acquits a guilty person, the accuracy of its verdicts can be criticized. There are three definitions of the reasonable person extant amongst courts and commentators: the reasonable person is either (1) a hypothetical ordinary, average person; (2) the embodiment of a community ideal; or (3) an embodiment of an objective ethical standard, i.e., ethical principles independent of community opinion. Nonetheless, after observing the circularity, vagueness, and lack of consistency in the definitions, wise courts and commentators have sometimes resorted to identifying the reasonable person with the judgment of the jury. This piece argues that failure to settle on a fixed definition of the "reasonable person" in the criminal law of self-defense effectively conflates material guilt and innocence and juridical guilt and innocence at the doctrinal level. When courts do not clearly and consistently choose between standards one, two, and three, or when they expressly treat the reasonable person as a form of words standing in for the judgment of the jury, they make it conceptually impossible for observers outside the court system to apply a fixed, definite standard to assess the actual guilt of a person apart from the judgments of tribunals. This paper's main purpose is to identify a conceptual knot rather than propose reforms. Still, it recommends two small changes meant to lift the confusion surrounding the reasonable person. First, it urges that courts expressly settle on one of the three definitions canvassed above. Second, it recommends that courts be mindful of the nature of the reasonable person standard and as such, be wary of treating conclusions about reasonableness as ordinary legal precedents, and wield the power of directed verdict aggressively to protect unpopular defendants from abuse by juries.
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