What is self defense in Massachusetts?

Everyone has the right of self defense. That means that if you’re being physically attacked, you can use force to protect yourself. Massachusetts self defense laws have limitations, however. Massachusetts does not have a stand your ground law. In Massachusetts you have a duty to retreat in order to avoid using deadly force. That rule is countered by the castle doctrine which allows you to protect yourself, including the use of deadly force, in your home. Self defense law is complicated. Let’s take a look at your rights.

The right to self defense in Massachusetts

Under Massachusetts law, you are legally allowed to use physical force to defend yourself if you reasonably believe that you are or are about to be attacked. It’s easy to know when you are being attacked. Someone is actively engaged in harming you physically. It’s more difficult to determine when an attack is about to happen. The aggressor must demonstrate through some overt act,  either in words or by some action, that they intend to harm you. The test is not whether you were in fear. The test is, would a reasonable person have been in fear at that moment.

What is stand your ground law?

Stand your ground laws state that a person may use force when confronted by another person who is threatening them. Under such a “make my day law” you are not required to retreat before defending yourself. This defense is not limited to when you are in your home. It applies anytime you are in a place where you have the legal right to be. Massachusetts is not a stand your ground state.

The Massachusetts duty to retreat

Under Massachusetts self defense law, you have the duty to retreat. This means that outside of your home, you can only use self defense if you have no other option. You are required to avoid the use of force by any other means, including walking away. You also can’t use self defense if you could have avoided it by calling for help. According to the self defense rules, you must exhaust all other options before you’re allowed to use physical force.

Excessive force in self defense in Massachusetts

Even when you are under attack and can’t retreat, you are still limited by Massachusetts self defense laws. In Massachusetts, you can’t use excessive force when defending yourself. You may only use as much force as is necessary to protect yourself. Knowing how much force is necessary can be very difficult, especially in an emergency situation. A jury will be instructed that they can take many factors into consideration such as:

  • The relative size of the parties;
  • The location of the attack; and,
  • If any weapons were involved.

No self defense claim in Massachusetts for retaliation

You can’t claim self defense if you’re retaliating against an aggressor. The right of self defense is only for emergency situations. Once the emergency dies down, the threat no longer exists. Once you are no longer in immediate danger, you can’t hit the other person. If you do so, you could be seen as simply attacking them out of revenge. The law does not protect you in that circumstance.

What is the castle doctrine in Massachusetts?

The castle rule, or the castle doctrine, states that if you are in your home or dwelling, you don’t have the duty to retreat before acting in self defense. You don’t need to exhaust all other methods to avoid a physical confrontation. Your home is your castle and you have a right to protect yourself while you’re in it. The castle law has limitations, however. When defending yourself in your home or dwelling, you must still:

  • Reasonably believe you are under immediate threat of great bodily injury; and,
  • You only use reasonable means to defend yourself.

What is a dwelling under the castle doctrine in Massachusetts?

Under the castle rule, you don’t need to retreat before defending yourself if you’re in your dwelling. But what is a dwelling? A dwelling is defined as a place where you are “temporarily or permanently residing and which is in your exclusive possession.” That includes:

  1. Houses,
  2. Apartments,
  3. Dormitories, and,
  4. Hospitals.

It does not include common areas shared with other people such as hallways and laundry rooms.

You can’t claim self defense if you were the original aggressor

If you’re the one who started the fight, you can’t later claim that you were protecting yourself. The right to self defense arises when you are faced with a dangerous situation caused by another. If it can be proven that you were the one that instigated the fight, a self defense claim is not an option.

In one case, the defendant was causing trouble in a bar. He was basically rude and obnoxious. One of the customers forced him out of the bar and they began fighting. At trial, the judge denied the defendant’s claim of self defense because he was the one that caused the trouble in the first place.

Victim’s prior threats against defendant

Oftentimes it’s difficult to know who started a fight. In deciding who was the attacker, a jury can consider previous threats made by the alleged victim. If you know that someone threatened you in the past and you believe they were intending on making good on that threat, that’s evidence that they were the aggressor. Similarly, if someone has assaulted you in the past and you believed they were about to do so again, that will strengthen your self defense claim.

Defense of another

Your legal right to defend yourself also apply if you are defending another person. Society wants to encourage all of us to come to the aid of another. As such, the courts allow you to use physical force to defend someone else. The same principles of self defense apply to defense of another. You may use force if:

  1. You reasonably believe that force is necessary to protect the other person, and
  2. You reasonably believed that the victim had the right to defend themselves.

Essentially, you’re allowed to step into the shoes of the victim and defend them.


Massachusetts self defense laws allow you to use force when you’re threatened. There is no stand your ground defense available in Massachusetts. If attacked outside of your home, you have the duty to retreat if possible. If you’re in your home, you have the right to defend your castle. That means you don’t have to retreat. The right to self defense has limitation, however. You can’t use excessive force and you can’t go after your attacker once the fight is over. If appropriate, self defense completely protects you from an assault and battery charge.

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