Bob has just beaten off a murderous attack by Alice. Plot over, Alice goes to jail, roll credits, right?
Wrong. Maybe Bob was bigger, or stronger, on the wrong end of a Double Standard (such as, for example, Double Standard: Abuse, Female on Male) or could conceivably have run away. Or because of racism (regular or the fantastic variety) all evidence (no matter how blatant) is ignored. Either way, someone in a position of authority feels that Bob was in the wrong inflicting whatever damage he did to Alice, who on the other hand, is a poor victim. Cue drama.
This often involves Double Standard: Abuse, Female on Male, as in the page example; sometimes, it's due to Selective Enforcement. Compare Can't Get Away With Nuthin', Wounded Gazelle Gambit, Wrongful Accusation Insurance. An attacker may even play a Deliberate Injury Gambit to invoke this trope. A history of such cases In-Universe may explain occurrences of Once Is Not Enough. If the attacker uses words instead of violence, it's Made Out to Be a Jerkass.
As with everything else law-related, expect the writers to interpret self-defense laws creatively. Whether this is Truth in Television varies heavily depending on circumstance: self-defense laws usually give a person the benefit of the doubt when defending themselves or others against attempted murder, rape, or assault with a deadly weapon. However there are many circumstances in which this presumption goes away, and you can be put in prison for attempted murder for firing a warning shot at an attacker.note
Compare Arrested for Heroism and The Lopsided Arm of the Law. Not to be confused with Self Offense. See also the Sliding Scale of Unavoidable vs. Unforgivable, Inconveniently Vanishing Exonerating Evidence and Killing in Self-Defense.
No Real Life Examples, Please! This does happen in Real Life, but let's leave it here.
- One Piece: The Straw Hat Pirates' main "crimes" against the World Government are protecting themselves and their friends from pirates and corrupted members of the Government. Usopp even lampshaded it during the Fishman Island arc when he, Brook, Nami, and Zoro took King Neptune and his soldiers hostage, remarking that they wouldn't have done so if the latter hadn't attacked them first.
- The only actual crimes Luffy has ever committed are infiltrating Impel Down and later orchestrating a prison break, otherwise he's almost squeaky clean.
- Kyros was arrested and incarcerated for killing a group of thugs who murdered his best friend in cold blood. Those years he spent in prison, fighting in Dressrosa's tournaments as an imprisoned gladiator, would make him famous and become known as "The Invincible Gladiator" who won 3,000 fights in a row. Once he's free, he becomes the commander of Dressrosa's royal army.
- In Rash one of the inmates at the prison was arrested because, when he saw his daughter's stalker trying to kill her, he panicked and beat him down with a bat, with the judge deciding he had gone overboard-and that the stalker, being insane, deserved a lighter sentence, resulting in him getting out first and trying to kill the woman again before she can marry. For obvious reasons, the police, that brought the father in because it was the procedure and expected him to not even be tried, is really embarrassed by the whole situation, and made a point of arresting the stalker again at the first occasion while protecting his victim.
- In Wortenia Senki kidnappers can (and usually do) charge their victims with a crime under the law if the kidnapper is ... a.) a slaver kidnapping a peasant, or even a noble (if from another country) to then sell on the market. b.) A "noble" knight kidnaps the spouse and child of a commoner rival. c.) A summoned "otherworlder" is attacked with deadly force upon being summoned "as a test" and not only retaliates, but actually has the gall to win the fight and then escape captivity. d.) If the kidnapper manages to drag you across a country boundary, you had best Leave No Witnesses because if you can get ID'd, your life's pretty much over. The protagonist was introduced fleeing Ortomea for violating "c.)"
- In The Asterisk War, any assault by a Genestella against Muggles is considered excessive force, even if totally justified. Ostensibly this is because Genestella are so much more physically powerful than Muggles but it's really Fantastic Racism. Supporting character Kirin Toudou's father Seijirou was sent to prison this way after he killed an armed robber to protect her, and she's fighting to see him released.
- This is the entire conflict between the X-Men and their nemesis, Magneto. The X-Men wholeheartedly believe in this ideal, as taught by their leader, Professor Xavier. Magneto, on the other hand, believes that the only way to battle oppression is to rise up and conquer humans. Various points of media will show either as being "right", Depending on the Writer.
- Explicit in Judge Dredd, where vigilante justice is a more heavily enforced crime than burglary and drug dealing. Yes, this includes "lethally resisting someone trying to kill you", or "breaking and entering private properly while trying to escape," but only if you're caught. Hilariously lampshaded when Rob Schneider's character in the first movie is told he didn't have to hijack the food-bot, he could have gone out the window.
Fergee: From twenty stories!? That would be suicide!Dredd: Maybe. But it's legal.
- Happens from time to time in Tex Willer, usually because both attacker and sheriff are on the paybook of the local Corrupt Hick.
- Rosario Vampire: Brightest Darkness: A recurring theme in Act III is that Tsukune's group is repeatedly targeted by the other students at Yokai Academy, who believe them to be nothing but fakers and Attention Whores claiming to fight Fairy Tale for attention. Whenever the students target them, Tsukune and the others fight back, and repeatedly get reprimanded by Headmaster Mikogami, who repeatedly pays no attention whatsoever to the fact that the students attacked them first, for doing so to the extent that he threatens to separate them if they get in another fight... which leads to the girls of the group getting blackmailed and nearly raped by Kano, who took advantage of Mikogami's decision to do exactly that. It's only after the incident with Kano that Mikogami wises up and agrees to give Tsukune and co. the right to defend themselves.
- In Act VI, Moka and co. also end up digging themselves deeper by killing HDA operatives. They acknowledge that it's not helping their claims of wanting peace, but they had no choice, since the HDA is actively trying to kill them on sight and none of them will listen to reason. Of course, in chapter 30, the new director, Hothorne Tamaka, keeps track of the security tapes, and is convinced of the truth behind their claims because they only killed in self-defense.
- Discussed in the Tokyo Ghoul fic Do You :REmember?. When Akira points out that Touka and Hinami killed her father Kureo Mado in response to Hide's insistence that not all ghouls are bad, Hide points out that not only did Mado kill Hinami's parents in cold blood simply for being Ghouls, but Touka and Hinami were only defending themselves after he attacked them.
- In Con Air, the (sympathetic) main character is put in prison for accidentally killing someone in defense of his pregnant wife, because A) one of the three scumbags who was trying to assault him got rid of the knife his late buddy pulled, B) his idiot lawyer advised him to plead guilty, C) the Hanging Judge on the case says that as an inactive soldier with expert combat training, he should have been more careful since his assailants were unarmed — even though there were three of them.
- This one is especially bad since it relies hugely on Hollywood Law. It's quite unlikely he'd even be prosecuted (his wife witnessed the entire thing), and he would have a very good chance at trial if they did, so it's unlikely his lawyer would advise a guilty plea. Additionally, it was shown to be a federal case despite no indication the deaths occurred in federal jurisdiction. Plus, a judge giving a defendant a harsher sentence because he's a veteran would be career suicide for the latter and an easy appeal for the former.
- The Butterfly Effect has Evan get sent to jail when he accidentally kills Tommy in self-defense. Mind you, everyone knows Tommy is a violent psycho and there were a dozen witnesses to testify that Tommy was trying to kill Evan. This might be because Evan did keep hitting Tommy after he was incapacitated.
- In Escape from Alcatraz:
- English is a veteran inmate in Alcatraz prison in 1961. He tells Frank Morris his story of how he wound up in there. He was harassed by two men, who tried to attack him with knives. English killed them both. The reason why he got two life sentences, back-to-back? The two men were white, and he was black.
- Morris is punished for fighting off Wolf when the latter attacks him with a shiv. "He came at me!" Morris rightly protests. However, it's possible the guard didn't see who began the fight. He doesn't bother to find out though.
- Similarly in The Dirty Dozen, African-American soldier Robert Jeffersen was sentenced to death by a military tribunal for killing two white racists who were trying to castrate him.
- In 100 Feet, Marnie is sent to jail for two years, and is on house arrest for another year, after killing her police officer husband with the knife he came after her with.
- Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a complex example. Jim Williams admits to having shot his lover Billy but claims it was self-defense when Billy, high as a kite and mad at him for an earlier snub, grabbed a Chekhov's Gun off the desk and shot and missed, giving Jim time to draw on him. Jim is tried for murder one based on discrepancies between his story and the forensic evidence. He later privately tells John Kelso that Billy tried to shoot him, but the safety was on and Jim shot him before he could turn it off, and he then staged the scene to make himself look less guilty (to explain the lack of gunshot residue on Billy's hands), saying "I'd rather be convicted of lying than of murder." However, his lawyer comes in with evidence of shoddy police work (previously discovered by Kelso) that suggests the cops could have accidentally compromised the exculpating evidence, and Jim goes back to his original story. It's never confirmed which version is true (though either way, Jim probably has a fair-to-decent self-defense case under Georgia law).
- Welcome Home: After Cassie kills her stalker that was trying to strangle her boyfriend, they both Freak Out over it due to being Americans in a foreign country (Italy) and thinking they can't get away with self-defense.
- In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry risks breaking The Masquerade by using magic to protect his cousin and himself against Dementors, and is put on trial for this. In this case, the government in question is waging a propaganda war against Harry, and is twisting the law in order to punish him as much as possible and make him look like a delinquent. When the defense proves Harry was in a situation where the options were breaking The Masquerade or having his soul ripped out of his body, the Ministry spun the story to make it sound like he got Off on a Technicality. And then it turns out that one of their particularly nasty members is secretly responsible for the attack in the first place, precisely to provoke him into using magic so they could prosecute him for it.
- In Hoot, Roy punches Dana in the face while being choked and is subsequently punished.
- Honor Harrington takes some flak with her political opponents for shooting a man when she knew his gun was empty, because he had emptied it in her general direction when her back was turned, in direct violation of the rules of the duel the two were engaged in. Under those rules, the supervisor was required to kill the offending party (which he was just about to do when she beat him to the punch), so her opponent would have died anyway. She also catches flack because she shot Pavel three times when the dueling code only allowed her to fire once - despite the fact that Pavel had just shot at her six times.
- The Dresden Files: Harry Dresden almost got executed for killing his Evil Mentor (who had tried to mind control and then kill him), because the White Council believes that killing using magic automatically warrants death—only somebody being willing to sponsor him saved him. And he still spent the next couple of years being repeatedly accused of Black Magic. The problem? Hundreds of years of experience has taught them that breaking the Laws of Magic, no matter how supposedly necessary or well-intentioned, usually sets people off on a dark path. And they have yet to be proven wrong. Yes, even with Harry.
- The Pride of Parahumans: The Ceres Directorate doesn't even recognize the right to self-defense, Vesta does but the law there is practically feudal. The protagonists were Cerean until they splattered a wanna-be pirate who was attacking them. It hurt that he was related to an executive, so they moved to Vesta.
- Journey to Chaos has this both defied and referenced. During A Mage's Power, Eric kills an orc in defense of Annala and the two subsequently worry about him getting in trouble for this. So much that Annala immediately collects evidence against it. Fortunately, Eric's guild has an in-house advocate who calls the incident an open-and-shut case of self-defense. Two books later this happens again and lands Eric in bigger trouble.
- X-Wing Series: The novel Wraith Squadron discusses this when Wedge is interviewing one of his pilot candidates, Voort "Piggy" saBinring. Voort, a Gamorrean, is facing a court-martial for supposedly striking a superior officer, who is willing to drop charges as long as Voort is transferred as far away from his command as possible. Voort maintains that he is the one who was struck at, and merely blocked the blow and made no effort to hit back; the officer's bias against Gamorreans led him to remember that as an attack and file charges. He adds that nobody he ever punched (in legal sparring matches) has been able to speak coherently in less than hour, whereas the officer in question filed charges less than half an hour later. It works out well in the end, as this act leads to Voort transferring to Wraith Squadron and going on to be one of the heroes of the New Republic.
- In the Dale Brown novel Starfire, Bradley gets into trouble for turning the tables on a pair of muggers threatening him and his friends, even after said crooks cut his arm with a knife and throw his disabled teammate out of her wheelchair.
- Fish In A Tree: Albert is regularly beaten up by a group of kids, but refuses to fight back. One reason being that, since he's bigger than them, he's afraid that people will think that HE'S bullying THEM. When they start beating up his friends, however, he drops this ideology and finally stands up to them.
- Season two of Dexter has his girlfriend's abusive ex-husband force his way into her house. Her children are sleeping nearby, and she's afraid of what will happen to them if she puts up a fight, so she lures him into her bedroom, and smacks him down with the Emergency Bat she keeps under her bed. Next thing you know, the ex-husband is filing assault charges against her, and she's in danger of losing her kids. Fortunately, her current boyfriend just happens to be a Serial-Killer Killer...
- In the Star Trek: Enterprise episode "North Star", killing a human, even in self-defense, is a hanging crime for a Skagerran.
- Space: Above and Beyond: Cooper is beaten and nearly hung in an alleyway because he was an Artificial Human. When he throws himself on a police car begging for help, they arrest him and shoo his attackers off. The judge sentences him to a stint in the Marine Corps, which turns out to be a huge improvement compared to his previous lot in life as a homeless person, even with an interstellar war raging.
- One episode of Mission: Impossible has Barney get arrested for accidentally killing a man who attacked him when he tried to stop him from harassing his girlfriend. Since the man he killed was a Dirty Cop in a city full of them, the rest of the team then has to rescue Barney before he can be summarily executed by a Kangaroo Court.
- El Chavo del ocho: During one of the several occasions where Doña Florinda decides to slap Don Ramón for something she thinks he did to her son, he manages to defend himself by placing a bucket on his head. Professor Jirafales is so outraged he punches Don Ramón for it.
- In a flashback sequence in The Unit, Jonas's father, newly returned from the Korean War, is accosted by two white men after asking a white woman to go into a whites-only shop to buy Jonas a soda. In the first version of the story Jonas tells, Dad talks them down, but in the second version seen at the end of the episode, they pull out a chain, clearly intending to beat or lynch him, and Dad kills them both with his KA-BAR knife. He then steals their truck to get out of town (no jury in the South would accept a self-defense plea from a black man against whites).
- Proven Innocent:
- Levi Scott hits back when Brian Husband assaults him with a bat. Brian and Helen, his wife, then claim Levi attacked him, so he's facing assault charges.
- Tamara Folson admitted to police that she slashed the man who tried raping her. However, they use this as a confession to murdering a different man. The judge hearing her petition uses this initially as a pattern of her supposed "aggression" as well, despite it being to defend herself.
- Some of the transwomen in "The Struggle for Stonewall" note that when they fought to defend themselves from transphobic bigots, the police instead arrested them.
- A likely deliberate example in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. After Rebecca rejects Trent, he messages her from a party, implying that he's about to kill Nathaniel. She rushes to the party to find Trent standing behind Nathaniel with a knife, and pushes him off the roof. Unfortunately, the messages were designed to self-destruct, and it turned out Trent had legitimately gotten a job as a waiter (the knife was for carving a turkey). Between that and her history of obsession and instability, it looks like murder. This was likely deliberate on Trent's part, to kill himself and make Rebecca take the blame.
- The iOS Gamebook called Heroes Rise has the Player Character's parents be famous superheroes who were attacked by an assassin while accepting their award in public. While attempting to subdue her, they accidentally kill her. The judge sentences them both to life in prison with no possibility of parole and doesn't even grant them visitation rights. Oh, and all their money is given to the assassin's daughter. It's made clear that this was a political move on the judge's part, as he was running for mayor at the time. However, it's not clear why a murder trial wasn't a trial by jury and why the jury didn't side with the city's favorite superheroes instead of an assassin who was trying to kill them. There should've been an appeal to a higher court (i.e. where said judge couldn't do anything). On the other hand, the ending implies that the judge-turned-mayor may have had other reasons to put away the player's parents.
- In the Grand Theft Auto games:
- Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas: The gangs can use you for target practice and the police isn't the least interested, but then you kill just one of those Ballas vermin and the police are all over you. In that specific case, there's at least the justification that the Los Santos police unit that deals the most with the gangs, CRASH, are corrupt as hell and working directly with the Ballas.
- Grand Theft Auto III: You get the same reaction for attacking the drug-trafficking the Triads in Liberty City.
- The only break you get is that, in Vice City and the two Stories games, you can occasionally see a single policeman chasing a random pedestrian and get $50 bucks as a "good citizen" bonus for punching said pedestrian in the face (specifically punching them - use an actual weapon and the cop will go after you instead).
- GTA Online is worse about it. Police are smarter in a single player sense, in that they will go out of their way to attack any aggressor they come across, from an armed player going crazy to a pedestrian that ran over a cop trying to get away, however, they will always target any player who makes an aggressive action in their sight. This comes to a head when you're defending yourself against an aggressive player who has killed you multiple times, where the cops, who are most likely there because of your death, start attacking you because you shot back. Even worse as of "Gunrunning" with the advent of weaponized personal vehicles, as destroying a player's personal vehicle results in 'Bad Sport' points and a hefty insurance payout to the vehicle's owner. This combines to make a situation where a player being attacked by one of these missile-and-minigun-armed vehicles who does manage to destroy it loses money for destroying it, risks being labeled a griefer by the game, and probably gets the cops called on them by nearby NPCs.
- In the X-Universe series, Police and Border Control ships only react aggressively to ships considered hostile to them - such as Xenon or Space Pirates. If the player is attacked by a ship not considered hostile to the police (such as a neutral race you've angered), the police will not react. But fire back at the attacker, and the cops will get angry. Destroy the attacker and you'll lose reputation with the sector owner. Thankfully, the police are usually pretty forgiving and ineffectual even if angered.
- In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, if you're a member of The Dark Brotherhood (a cult of assassins) and on assignment, you can confront your mark and threaten them, which sometimes prompts them to attack you in defense. If any guards are around, they will attack this person who's obviously the instigator, and won't trouble you if you fight back. It's all a matter of who attacks first.
- There's a subversion in Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc: The first culprit killed someone who tried to kill him first, making it a crime of self-defense...except as a classmate points out, the first culprit actually had another option; when the would-be murderer locked herself in the shower, the actual murderer could have simply left the room and escaped. Instead, he went out of his way to retrieve his toolbox from his room, then go back to his victim's room just to break down the shower door and stab her. The manga version is played straighter: he went into the shower without any weapons in an ill-thought-out attempt to calm her down, then accidentally stabbed her as they struggled over the knife, but before he can explain this Monokuma says that it doesn't matter whether it was self-defense or not.
- In Senran Kagura, this ends up being a huge part of Homura's backstory. When she was in eighth grade, she was attacked by her tutor, who turned out to be an evil shinobi sent to kill her. She almost killed him, partly out of self-defense and partly due to his betraying her trust. This locks her out of the path towards becoming a good shinobi due to the fact that committing a crime before admission to a shinobi school is an automatic disqualification. Her parents abandoned her because of that.
- Notably played with in the ending of Undertale. Although it's true you can only get the absolute best ending in the game by killing no one (even the ones you were legitimately defending your life against), you don't get judged very harshly in neutral endings where you took some lives: it's actually acknowledged In-Universe that you were defending yourself, and it's not until you killed so many monsters that it's clear you didn't need to go that far to defend yourself that you start getting called out for it. The only one who starts condemning you at a single kill is Undyne, and if your only kill is Asgore even she begrudgingly admits that you probably had no other choice. In the true pacifist ending you're essentially hailed as The Paragon and ultimate hero of the underground who utterly refused to take a life under any circumstance, even by the Flowey The Flower, and even then you need to intently fight Asriel until he simply loses the will to fight.
- Used for symbolism in Silent Hill: Downpour, where you get a worse ending for killing enemies. Said enemies are mindless demonic constructs who gleefully try and slaughter you for the street cred, but if you want that best ending you need to take the moral high ground, spare them, and do a Pacifist Run.
- Postal 2 ends up doing this as part of deliberately avoiding having the police focus on the player, along with Rule of Funny being part of it. Police and armed citizens tend to fixate on whoever they see shooting first, which can quickly snowball out of control. It can even be exploited by the player, either leading attackers (whether or not you hit them first) into view of police or causing havoc out of sight to provoke any NPC in earshot to draw whatever weapons they have, at which point they see all those other people nearby with guns drawn...
- In a strip of Ozy and Millie, their regular Jerk Jock bully, Jeremy, keeps pushing Millie into a pool of mud, knocking her over every time she tries to get up. Finally, she snaps and socks him in the face... at which point a teacher immediately spots her, and hauls her into the principal's office for starting a fight. (The injustice inherent in the school system is a frequently visited theme). What makes this even worse, the same teacher, upon being questioned by Millie's mom, pretty much admitted she saw the whole thing and only punished Millie because it was easier than dealing with the REAL bully. Quoth Millie's mom: "Did it hurt having your soul extracted?"
- Girl Genius made a running gag early in its run about everyone being mad at Gil for killing doctor Beetle (by batting his own bomb back at him), and Gil defending himself by saying, "He threw a bomb at me!"
- Also somewhat justified, in that Gil is the heir to his father's extremely chaotic empire, and as such he's going to need to learn to be more in control of every situation he's in than anyone else, even to the point of anticipating such attacks and dealing with them while still keeping his resources (such as people who need interrogating) intact. By Mechanicsburg, he's got a handle on this.
- In Muertitos, the school has a zero-tolerance policy. After a girl bully attacks him, Honeo is suspended because instead of lying limp, he flailed around and could have hit someone, but the bully got off scot-free because her dad is rich and regularly makes donations to the school. You can see the strip here.
- In Leftover Soup Jamie was mugged and shot but he grabbed the guy's gun and pistol-whipped him with it then called the police. But because the mugger was technically a minor (albeit a lot larger than the scrawny Jamie) the police took his side when he pressed charges for assault, and the only fingerprints on the (stolen) gun were Jamie's, and the press painted it as a hate crime because the supposedly beaten 17-year old was black. Jamie only got off because his accuser OD'd on PCP and killed himself.
- And it's later revealed that the mugger had stolen the ID showing him as a minor, to use as a cover identity. And he later murdered the original owner (the 17-year old) and planted the PCP to cover his tracks. Jamie is not happy to know that the police let this guy walk.
- In Selkie the title character is assaulted at school and suspended for fighting when she kicked the bully in self-defense. The bully, on the other hand, wasn't punished, due to the school's principal being entirely cowed by the bully's parents.
- In the arc "Milk" of S.S.D.D a junkie tries to rob a store while Norman is there. Norm beats the crap out of the would-be thief, then gets arrested while walking back home. However thanks to the Amoral Attorney his mysterious employer hired and a clever suggestion by one of the cops to keep him out of trouble on Guy Fawkes he gets sentenced to 70 hours community service with The Bonfire Association. Notable for being a rare straight example that is not a case of Artistic License Law: As Norman's lawyer points out, if he'd just punched the guy out then he wouldn't even have been arrested, but Norman kept waling on him long after he was no longer a threat, which will get you in trouble in Britain even if you were initially defending yourself from an unprovoked assault.