Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

In criminal law, duress refers to situations where an individual is forced or coerced into committing an act against their will, typically due to threats or the actual use of physical force by another individual. This is one of several defenses available for those charged with a crime. While it shares similarities with the choice of evils defense in that both hinge on the presence of external compelling factors, they differ significantly in the sources and nature of the compulsion.

Definition of Duress

Duress, in criminal law, describes circumstances under which an individual is compelled or pressured to act against their natural inclinations or free will. This compulsion typically arises from threats, intimidation, or the actual use of physical force by another person. For example, imagine being cornered by someone with a weapon, demanding you commit a specific act, or face dire consequences. In such a situation, even if the action you take is illegal, you’re acting under duress, with the underlying understanding being that the true intent or “guilty mind” behind the act is not yours but that of the person exerting the force or making the threat. The recognition of duress in legal systems underscores the importance of intent and volition in determining guilt or innocence.

The Logic Behind the Duress Defense

At the heart of criminal law is the concept of mens rea, or the “guilty mind.” It is this very intent or state of mind that often differentiates an innocent act from a criminal one. When the law evaluates the culpability of an individual’s actions, it doesn’t merely consider the act itself; it delves deeper into the intent behind the act. Thus, the presence of a guilty intent is crucial in determining the nature and gravity of most crimes.

However, the defense of duress presents a unique challenge to this framework. When an individual acts under duress, they may commit an act that, under normal circumstances, would be classified as a crime. Yet, the defense argues that the true culpability or “guilty mind” lies not with the individual who committed the act but with the person who exerted the coercion or force. In such cases, can the person who was forced into action genuinely be considered as possessing the requisite guilty intent? The essence of the duress defense is to grapple with this very dilemma, highlighting the complexities of human decision-making under extreme pressure.

Duress in Legal Frameworks

Legal codes and frameworks often outline duress as an affirmative defense. This means that if an individual claims they were acting under duress, they acknowledge that they committed the act in question but argue that they should not be held liable due to the compelling circumstances.

In many legal guidelines, the defense of duress is available when:

  1. An actor genuinely believed they had no alternative but to commit the act because of an immediate threat or use of unlawful force against them or another person.
  2. The threat or force was such that a person of ordinary firmness in the actor’s situation would have been unable to resist.
  3. The actor did not recklessly or negligently place themselves in a situation where it was probable that they would be subjected to duress.

Contrasting with Choice of Evils

It’s worth noting briefly how the defense of duress differentiates from the choice of evils defense. While both defenses focus on external compelling factors that might drive someone to commit a crime, their origins differ. Duress typically arises from human threats or force. In contrast, the choice of evils often stems from a need to prevent greater harm, usually arising from natural or unpredictable circumstances.


The defense of duress recognizes the complexities of human decision-making, especially under threat or force. Legal frameworks typically provide guidelines that balance the need to hold individuals accountable for their actions with the recognition that, sometimes, circumstances beyond one’s control can force one into criminal acts. As always, it’s crucial to consult specific legal codes or consult with legal professionals for detailed and jurisdiction-specific information.


In criminal law, “duress” is a defense used when someone is forced to commit a crime against their will, often due to threats or actual force from another person. It’s different from the “choice of evils” defense, where one commits a crime to prevent a greater harm. At the core of criminal actions is the intention or “guilty mind” behind the act. If someone acts under duress, the argument is that the true intention was not theirs but was forced upon them by another’s threats or coercion. Legally, if someone says they acted under duress, they admit to the act but argue they shouldn’t be blamed because of the pressure they were under. This defense underscores the importance of personal intention in determining guilt. However, for this defense to hold, one must genuinely believe there was no other option, and they shouldn’t have carelessly put themselves in such a situation.

Modification History

File Created:  07/17/2018

Last Modified:  09/26/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


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