duress | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction / Criminal Law

Duress is a legal defense available to a person who does something against their will under threat of harm.

Duress is a legal defense available to defendants who are coerced or threatened into committing a crime under the fear of imminent harm. It is based on the principle that a person should not be held responsible for their actions if they are forced to act against their will due to an imminent threat of harm.

The defense of duress is recognized in both common law and statutory law in most jurisdictions. The Model Penal Code defines duress as a defense to a criminal charge if the defendant can show that they were compelled to commit the crime by the use of unlawful force or threat of unlawful force. The force or threat must be such that a reasonable person in the defendant’s position would have been unable to resist it.

The defense of duress is not available in all situations, however. It typically cannot be used as a defense to murder or other serious crimes, and the defendant must have committed the crime to prevent the threatened harm from occurring. Additionally, the defendant must have had no reasonable alternative but to commit the crime and must have immediately reported the threat to the authorities or taken other reasonable steps to prevent the harm from occurring.

In order to successfully assert the defense of duress, the defendant must show that the threat of harm was imminent and credible and that they had a reasonable fear of harm if they did not comply with the demand. The defendant must also show that the harm threatened was more serious than the harm caused by the crime itself.

The use of duress as a defense can be difficult to prove, as it often involves subjective judgments about the defendant’s state of mind and the credibility of the threat of harm. Additionally, the use of the defense can be controversial, as it can be seen as excusing criminal behavior in situations where the defendant had other options or could have taken steps to avoid the threat of harm.

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Last Modified: 04/09/2023


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