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I was partying at the club, minding my own business. All of a sudden, the guy was in my personal space. He was obviously drunk. He kept telling me I was “hot” and asking me to dance.

I tried ignoring him, then laughing at him, then getting hostile, but he wouldn’t back down. Finally, he grabbed the front of my dress. I went on reflex: bam, bam, bam. Just like I practiced in martial arts class.

When my third strike hit his face, blood flew everywhere, and he dropped like a stone. I stomped him when he hit the floor so he wouldn’t get up and come after me again, just like my instructor taught me. By the time security responded, all they could do was call an ambulance.

Unfortunately for me, they called the police, too. After the officers were done taking statements, they arrested me and charged me with unlawful wounding, assault and battery, and reckless endangerment. They said I’d overreacted, and that I’d hurt the guy way beyond what was reasonable.

I don’t get why they arrested me and not him. He’s the one who started it. I told him “no,” and he put his hands on me anyway. I hope my lawyer can get me off by claiming self defense. After all, that’s always what my instructor said we were practicing. I was just doing what she taught me to do.

The lesson of this story (which is based on a composite of real incidents) is if you study martial arts, indiscriminate use of your skills could wind up getting you into legal trouble.

For those tempted to react with a flippant “I’d rather be judged by 12 than carried by six,” that jury you’re relying on may just hold your martial arts training against you.

Based on legal precedent, U. S. courts are less lenient toward martial artists accused of violent crimes. The current legal thinking is that since martial artists are more capable of injuring or killing an opponent, they should be held to a higher standard when it comes to use of force.

This means if you ever use your skills during a violent encounter, your words and actions will get far greater scrutiny than those of an ordinary citizen, and you will receive less benefit of the doubt. As a martial artist, then, you need to understand the legal limitations on using your skills on the street.

To claim self defense, you need to show that your actions during a violent encounter met the AOJP (ability, opportunity, jeopardy, preclusion) test. There’s an excellent detailed discussion of AOJP at useofforce.us. The condensed version is that you can only claim self defense if:

1. You face an immediate threat to your well-being that you did not instigate and cannot avoid.
2. The force you employ to counter the threat is reasonable given the nature of the threat.
3. You stop applying that force as soon as the threat is no longer immediate.

Unless all of these conditions are met, the court will likely reject your claim of self defense. As a consequence, you will not only face criminal prosecution, but also civil liability if you hurt or killed your attacker.

Given the increased legal risks martial artists face, should responsible martial arts training actively address the legal use of force? Not necessarily. The focus of most modern martial arts schools, at least in the U. S., is not on self defense. It’s on sport competition or tradition. If this is your emphasis, there’s probably no need to modify your training. Awareness of the above legal limitations, a realistic view of your training, and a healthy dose of good judgment are probably sufficient.

However, if you’re training for personal protection, your training needs to be explicitly designed to meet that goal. Your workouts may make you skilled, fit, and tough, but that doesn’t mean you’re learning effective self defense. Unless legal use of force is integrated into your curriculum, what you’re learning could actually increase your risk of criminal and civil liability.