What is Duress

Duress is a common law defense to criminal charges that results in acquittal. At its core, a defendant claiming duress is arguing that another person forced them to commit the crime with threats of serious harm. In order to establish a successful duress defense, the defendant must prove:

  • Another person threaten to kill or seriously harm the defendant or a close relative.
  • The defendant reasonably believed that threat was genuine.
  • The threat was imminent at the time of the crime.
  • There was no reasonable escape from the threat except through compliance
  • The defendant did not expose himself to the threat.

These strict requirements of a duress defense make it rare that a defendant successfully prevails.

The rationale behind a duress defense is that the threat of criminal punishment is ineffective to deter someone who is in immediate danger of death. If someone is given the option between breaking the law or facing death, most people will break the law in order to save themselves, even if it means going to jail. Additionally, the law sees duress defendants as victims of coercion that do not deserve to be punished for their actions. They will not be likely to re-offend because it was not their free choice to commit a crime in the first place

A duress defense is generally unavailable for homicide defendants, but can be available in cases involving battered women. Many times, battered women assault or murder their partners out of fear of their life. The difficulty is, that this doesn’t usually happen when the women is in an immediate threat of danger. Instead, it is frequently at a time when the partner is unsuspecting. Though the battered women cannot usually satisfy the immanency requirement, the trend is to admit testimony regarding battered women syndrome to buttress the duress defense.

Duress defenses are also commonly seen in prison escape cases. In these cases, the defendant is arguing that intolerable conditions in the penitentiary forced them to escape out of necessity. Many states accept this defense, but many others do not. Of the states that do accept this defense, it is generally required that the defendant had surrendered or turned himself back into authorities after attaining a period of safety outside of the prison. If the defendant failed to do so, then the defense will unlikely be available to him. Duress is very common with legal cases regarding health and health insurance. Check out my page on health law for more!

image of man under duress