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One common urban legend that tends to be passed around from time to time is something along the lines of the following:

Black belts are considered lethal weapons by the law!

Which might also be extended to include something along the lines of also having to register with the police when you make black belt in a given style. While there doesn't seem to be much truth to the matter, are there actually any legal ramifications involved if a trained martial artist is involved in an altercation?

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    This is fairly dependent on location. Would you please specify which legal system is concerned? – Anon Feb 1 '12 at 3:23
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    @Trevoke - I'll tag the question with the united-states tag, but I also don't want to discourage others from answering regardless of their country. – anonymous Feb 1 '12 at 3:25
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    fair enough, but then, shouldn't you make this a community wiki question? Otherwise, how can you pick one answer to be the best? – Anon Feb 1 '12 at 3:33
  • @Trevoke - Might be a good idea to do so, but I don't see the option to do it myself. – anonymous Feb 1 '12 at 3:48
  • there it is: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/11740/… Interesting, I didn't know most of this stuff. – Anon Feb 1 '12 at 3:51

10 Answers 10

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That misconception doesn't just exist in the USA, I have heard of it since I was a kid, and is most likely a product of Hollywood.

In the country of New Zealand, there is no differentiation in law between a trained martial artist and the ordinary person on the street. You have no extra legal obligations than the normal person next to you. But much like a police officer and judge are both subject to the exact same laws as everyone else, like them you also have extra moral or social obligations that the average person may not be subject to. These obligations usually come into consideration after you have used your skills to defend yourself. A recent example of this are the comments from a prosecutor in Australia after a self-styled MMA fighter king-hit an innocent bystander who later died:

NSW Attorney General Greg Smith expressed his sympathies to the families and said he had contacted the director of public prosecutions over the matter.

"I have spoken to the Acting Director of Public Prosecutions and asked him to closely examine this case with a view to determining if murder charges are appropriate in light of the evidence, and in light of the alleged offender’s reported martial arts experience," said Mr Smith in a statement.


The law here can be summarized as saying:

You may use the minimum necessary force to defend yourself

In the past the school I train at has obtained a legal definition of exactly what this means, which is: as soon as I reasonably believe my safety to be in danger I may use reasonable force to protect myself. That reasonable belief can exist the moment I see my opponent telegraph a move, I can then use a reasonable amount of force to defuse that situation and preserve my safety. As a trained martial artist there is a far higher duty of care required in my application of force to my opponent, and this changes the definition of what can be considered reasonable.

If a situation ever occurs, being careful will serve you well after the fact. Consider what a jury would think during a trial on assault charges:

  1. the attacker has two broken limbs, three dislocated joints, and exhibits signs of having lost consciousness in a sudden way (i.e. lack of memory, possible concussion). The defendant (you) says that he honestly only used the minimum amount of force to defend himself. Was the attacker particularly tough and persistent and high on methamphetamine and was consequently tough to stop? Or did the defendant not stop when he should have and administered his own brand of justice?
  2. the attacker claims he did nothing and the defendant just hit him out of nowhere. The defendant said he saw the attacker start to attack so he (legally) acted first. The attacker's telegraphing moves are too small to be seen on the grainy CCTV footage shot from 20 feet away in dim lighting conditions. The people standing around either didn't see what happened or were too drunk to be reliable witnesses. Can the defendant really justify the dislocated shoulder or knee suffered by the attacker?
  3. the attacker is claiming vast amounts of monetary compensation for damages because although the attacker was drunk, hostile, belligerent, out of control and was threatening your girlfriend with forms of behaviour more at home in a fifteenth century torture chamber, you gave him a sore head and because you are a trained martial artist you should have known better and should have just humored him. Now he is suffering lifelong braincell loss from your blow and he didn't actually do those things to your girlfriend so he is the victim.

In all these cases you could have acted perfectly reasonably at the time, but who is the jury (or judge) going to believe? They weren't there, they didn't experience what happened, they are analyzing the event after the fact. Your extra responsibilities due to your training dictate that you only do what is absolutely necessary. So although you may have 50 lethal moves in your repertoire, you only use the minimum number of non-lethal moves necessary to defuse the situation.

A guilty or innocent verdict often comes down to interpretation of imprecise wording and interpretation of confusing and muddled events, and as a trained martial artist you may have a disadvantage due to people's perceptions of you and what you do.


Edit

Ironically, just over a year since I wrote that answer, I had to serve on a jury in an assault with a weapon case where the accused pleaded self defence, and this gives me some insight into how this can play out with respects to a martial artist.

The accused was not a martial artist, but there were many parts of point #2 from above present in the case:

  • the complainant claimed he was attacked first, the accused said she was attacked first and defended herself
  • grainy inconclusive CCTV footage shot from a distance
  • unreliable eye witnesses
  • excessive and/or random injuries suffered by the complainant that were out of scale compared to the alleged infringement

This shows how conflicting or contradictory the case can be when self defense is claimed. In this case the accused is innocent until proven guilty which means the prosecution have to prove that it wasn't self defense.

If the accused is a martial artist the prosecution's job is easier because the jury will have an automatic bias even though they don't mean to (remember that they are ordinary people from the community). This will be compounded by the fact that due to your training you may not remember the exact sequence of actions that took place and the exact force you may have hit with - you are trained to react without conscious thought which makes remembering really hard and the jury will not necessarily understand this. If the case relies upon balance of probabilities then it will be harder for you to convince the judge/jury that your actions were reasonable.

Conclusion: (in this jurisdiction) there are no specific legal ramifications for being a martial artist involved in a fight, but there will certainly be consequences or complications for you should it reach trial and you are the accused.

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    I understand that it's basically the same here in Australia - I believe it falls under the "reasonable person" test - "each person owes a duty to behave as a reasonable person would under the same or similar circumstances." The "reasonable-ness" of your actions in defending yourself is assessed by a jury. – William Mioch Feb 1 '12 at 9:03
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    The basic rule in the US is that "A person may [...] use physical force upon another person when and to the extent he reasonably believes such to be necessary to defend himself or a third person from what he reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of unlawful physical force by such other person" with a few added caveats and conditions. Very similar. – David H. Clements Feb 1 '12 at 23:45
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    "due to your training you may not remember the exact sequence of actions that took place and the exact force you may have hit with - you are trained to react without conscious thought which makes remembering really hard" - in my experience it's more the opposite - real life altercations have been over quickly and I typically remember them blow for blow afterwards, with a lot of the subtle positional, conversation (if any), timing, distancing, footwork, even my own thinking and decision making at various stages of the conflict. I could reenact them accurately - unlike dojo/tournament kumite. – Tony D Oct 19 '14 at 15:48
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    This is a great legal analysis of the situation. Most of it is correct EXCEPT one thing... Self Defense is an affirmative defense; that has nothing to do with the assumption of innocence. You are assumed to be innocent until you are proven beyond a reasonable doubt that you attacked someone. WITH that in mind, you can setup an affirmative defense, which is in essence saying that "Yes, I did attack someone, BUT there's a reason for it." The burden of proof is ON YOU. You need to prove self-defense not the other way around. The prosecution only have to prove you committed the crime. – Ying Li Dec 22 '14 at 23:59
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    @LiY As a further development of where things are at: Australia has just introduced a new federal "king hit" law which mandates a minimum of 10 years imprisonment for death caused by one strike. This is a lot more than you would get if you were convicted of manslaughter (I think "involuntary murder" is the US equivalent), and is regardless of how the person died; i.e. it applies even if they hit their head on the way down (if they died of a cardiac event it might not apply). This is a tough law that makes it harder for martial artists to defend themselves in court. – slugster Dec 23 '14 at 1:21
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This will probably vary depending on where you are, but weapons law is generally fairly specific about what is a weapon and what isn't, and I think it's unlikely that you'll find martial arts training defined as a weapon.

What you need to worry about more is the reasonable use of force. I know that in Australia (or at least, my state, Queensland), the laws which allow self-defence, defence of others and property, and so on, all require that the defender only use as much force as is reasonably necessary in the situation. Unfortunately, this is often considered in hindsight, and a prosecutor or jury have the benefit of seeing your training record, knowing whether the attacker was armed or had friends ready to help, knowing whether the attacker had training themselves, and so on.

My advice (and I am not a lawyer) would be that if you ever injure someone when you're in a self-defence situation, be clear from the first moment you talk to the police that it was chaotic, you weren't sure if he was armed, you were afraid for your life, and so on. You may be called on to justify the force you used, and all of those impressions will be weighed against your training.

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    I should add that I have personal experience in this area. Someone broke into my home, and I put him in hospital. I was fortunate (or not!) that he had a gun and shot me in the leg, so there was no question that I was justified in giving him a few injuries (I didn't use a weapon). – Rophuine Feb 1 '12 at 3:09
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    "Be clear from the first moment you talk to the police that it was chaotic" Actually, better yet, don't talk to the police. Get a lawyer, quickly, to do that talking for you: youtube.com/watch?v=6wXkI4t7nuc – David H. Clements Feb 1 '12 at 3:12
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    @Rophuine - Guy breaks into your house, shoots you in the leg, and then tries to have you charged?! Good grief. – Justin Morgan Feb 1 '12 at 21:56
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    Yeah, the fact that he had a gun and it was in your home frequently–though not always–makes it a "lethal force warranted" situation under law, which simplifies things significantly for force short of lethal. – David H. Clements Feb 2 '12 at 6:51
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    @DavidH.Clements: Stale topic I know, but different countries have crazy laws, and lots of places don't have any sort of "lethal force warranted" law. A guy in his 50s (frail for his age) in my state (Qld, Australia) was recently charged with excessive force for stabbing an intruder in the stomach (the intruder wasn't badly injured) because the intruder, who was fit, strong, and in his 20s, wasn't armed. Crazy, but true. – Rophuine Mar 8 '12 at 9:31
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My understanding is that the major ramification is that it can make a self-defense plea more challenging because of the way a jury will perceive you.

It's one thing to try and convince a jury that what you did to defend yourself was reasonable if you are wholly untrained. It is another thing entirely to do so when you're a 3 dan. Just a matter of perception. This partly comes in with the question of whether you have acted "reasonably" given the circumstances. Of course, this is mostly hearsay itself (I don't have case law to back it up at the moment), but it makes some degree of sense given the nature of jury trials.

You can see some fairly good analysis of it from a US lawyer: Part I: Civil Liability and Part II: Criminal Liability which also addresses some of the sport aspects. It also talks about the hand or foot being classified as a "deadly weapon" for legal purposes (not registration purposes, but for matters of determining things like "assault with a deadly weapon") and self defense.

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I've had to answer this question a lot over the years, and used to have a link on my old computer about where that came from: Essentially, the rumor of martial artists having to register their hands as lethal weapons stemmed from boxing, where a boxing promoter once claimed his client had his hands registered as weapons... It was, of course, completely bogus, though some countries in decades past did have laws, generally stemming from more Victorian/Edwardian sensibilities, about the use of a closed fist, naming it a weapon of lethal intent.

There are, however, significant legal ramifications of being a martial artist on trial for assault, namely that your training, if brought into question, could be construed as an ability to cause serious bodily injury or harm. This is, however, entirely dependent upon state statutes, and not federal ones (unless, of course, you assault a federal officer, in which case his status would automatically make your crime aggravated...)

According to California Penal Code, §245(a)(1):

Any person who commits an assault upon the person of another with a deadly weapon or instrument other than a firearm or by any means of force likely to produce great bodily injury shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for two, three, or four years, or in a county jail for not exceeding one year, or by a fine not exceeding ten thousand dollars ($10,000), or by both the fine and imprisonment.

I've highlighted the point of contention. According to SHOUSE Law Group, while hands and feet do not constitute deadly weapons, you can still trigger an Aggravated Assault charge because those may be constituted a means of force likely to produce great bodily injury.

The real point to remember is that you can be arrested for anything at any time. The police can hold you on suspicion, generally for 48-72 hours dependent upon jurisdiction. During that time, it's up to a prosecutor to decide if you should be charged, and if he can make a case against you for the crime he feels you should be charged with. Generally, even if you defend yourself or others, you are going to be held to the standard of proving the circumstance warranted your action. As such, self-defense is considered an affirmative defense: you're claiming that you did commit the act you are charged with, but the circumstances of acting were such that it was permissible under the law. Quod est necessarium est licitum.

NB: Nothing in this answer, stated or implied, is intended as legal advice. It is advised that all concerned parties consult their own legal council.

  • Very good answer. I have not seen, in any jurisdiction, where black belts or martial artists have to register themselves as lethal weapons. But in a trial your training will come into question and because of your training you should have been able to control yourself, which could lead to a stiffer penalty or sentence. – Swift Feb 1 '12 at 18:33
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    This is very true. Essentially, everything can and will come into evidence that relates to the trial, including, unfortunately, just how likable you are. In the interest of disclosure, I don't believe in hanging around for the police. My responsibility is to my family above all else. If what I did was illegal, they'll come and find me. – stslavik Feb 1 '12 at 18:55
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In Germany, if you are in a situation where someone is aggressive towards you, you are allowed to use reasonable force to defend yourself. As a trained martial artist or someone who has experience fighting, you are asked to first try and defuse the situation by blocking the first attack, instead off beating your opponent right away.

Of course in practise, it might depend on the exact situation, how you handle it. If there is imminent danger, you can of course react in a reasonable way, without first trying to talk the attacker down.

So much for theory. Let's all hope, we don't have to use it.

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In the UK, you can defend yourself provided you use reasonable force. This sadly has no legal definition whatsoever and is solely based on your lawyer(s), their lawyer(s), and what the judge decides is reasonable force for yourself in the particular case of the case. As such, any martial artist will have a stronger burden of proof than they used reasonable force.

For more details, look at the Self-Defence and the Prevention of Crime section of the Crown Prosecution Service web site. ⚠ Law speak inside.

The best option is to run away following rule one: cardio!

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    +1 for mentioning running as an option, and for the zombieland reference, of course ;-) – Robert Petermeier Feb 4 '12 at 6:54
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The opposing attorney will bring up any and all issues they can to win their case. If you having studied martial arts to any degree and the attorney can exploit it they will

  • While very true, the likely exploitation due to any formal training, this doens't really fit the inquiry. No -1, but no +1 due to the rather unhelpful answer. – coltonon Jun 29 '16 at 5:13
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In michigan, as an martial artist You are required to warn your assailant. Only after several attempt to deescalate the situation are you allowed to defend yourself. Then you can still be charged with battery if it is determined you used unnecessary force.

I was sued for medical cost, after breaking a mans nose after he swung a bat at me. I ultimately won the lawsuit but lost 2 days of pay being in court.

A state trooper once told me that if 2 people are in a fight, and there are no witness. The one with the fewest bruises goes to jail on suspicion of assault.

  • +1 for the first paragraph. -1 for anecdotal evidence and hear say. – Sardathrion - Reinstate Monica Jan 15 '14 at 13:10
  • @sadrdathrion. Hearsay? If you are referring to the state trooper I will rephrase he is also the state trooper that arrested the individual who swung the bat at me. The only reason I was not arrested was the 2 witness that verified the fact I did it in self defense. – Ragman Jan 15 '14 at 15:52
  • Yes, I was referring to the state trouper. It makes more sense if he is part of your anecdote. – Sardathrion - Reinstate Monica Jan 15 '14 at 16:38
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This is not an urban legend at all. UN resolution 502 (concerning the Falkland Islands invasion) has a clause stipulating that any soldier having earned a 2nd degree black belt in any form of martial arts can be considered an unlawful weapon. This stems from the fact that Taekwondo is very popular in Argentina and soldiers were regularly seen jump-kicking livestock.

Ever since the resolution was passed, it has been a requirement that all martial artists residing within a country that has a seat on the UN council that are above the rank of 1st Dan (or its equivalent) go to their nearest police station and inform them of the fact that they are classified as a deadly weapon.

Be advised that many ordinary police personnel aren't aware of resolution 502's stipulation regarding 2nd degree black belts, so you may wish to speak to a commanding officer.

It would also help if you demonstrated some of the more lethal techniques you have learned, like the somersaulting knifehand block and the spinning jab. But never under any circumstances demonstrate getsugatensho (if you don't know what this is, don't ask), unless you are prepared to spend a night behind bars.

Reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_Security_Council_Resolution_502

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    Wikipedia is not a reference, the article does not reference anything to do with martial arts, and its link to the text is broken. Could you find the exact text of the resolution? – Sardathrion - Reinstate Monica Jan 15 '14 at 12:54
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    I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV. That said, I do not believe that a UN resolution automatically translate into the law of any country whether they signed it or not. A quick and dirty search shows that they are considered "recommendations" by article 10 and 14. Admittedly, that was from wikipedia which, as I said before, is not a reference. Still, it should be east to verify. Apparently Sergei A. Voitovich, International Economic Organizations in the International Legal Process, p. 95. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1995. ISBN 0-7923-2766-7 has the meat of the matter. – Sardathrion - Reinstate Monica Jan 15 '14 at 13:00
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    Now I want to go down to the local police station, demand they put me on their list of registered deadly martial artists, and look at the confused look on their faces. – GrandmasterB Jan 15 '14 at 18:26
  • The text of the UN SCR 502 has no mention to black belts whatsoever, – Daniel Reis Jul 9 at 12:36
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I have been employed as a doorman at various clubs throughout New Zealand and find the subject of reasonable force interesting, as a fellow MMA practitioner I have much pride in my calm zen like being but I thought id share an interesting conversation I had with a New Zealand senior sergeant who was on duty one night, the subject was training, my sensei had been involved in teaching the police some nin-jutsu techniques and me and this officer were discussing application and life and death situations, he told me in his own words "by law if I feel threatened or in danger from any person/s I have the moral obligation to strike first" he called this "Pre-emptive strike" ,basically he said why wait to see if this clowns going to try swing a punch or pull a knife, if you have the ability to de-fuse the situation as quickly and safely as possible DO It, he said I might have a guy yelling at me calling me any name under the sun, but the moment I sense the situation is dangerous to myself or anyone within a close proximity to me then shut it down, this is the same protocol the police use, better safe then sorry, obviously this does not justify knocking the person out or breaking a bone but a simple shoulder lock or choke (applied with care) will act as enough to defuse the situation.

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    Hi Byron, welcome. Can you take some time to format your answer? At the moment it is a wall of text, try and break it up a bit. Just use the edit link at the bottom of your answer. Thanks. – slugster Feb 18 '14 at 0:22
  • I believe the inquirer was looking for some references and factual information regarding the legality of, not consequential actions to said conflict, but the state of being a high ranking martial artist, in regards to the law. – coltonon Jun 29 '16 at 5:09

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