The Common Law

Basketbrawl – can the players claim self-defense?

Could the players argue self-defense if the NBA fight happened in Texas?

Everyone saw the replays of the most disturbing scene in recent sports memory – the brawl between Indiana Pacers players and Detroit Pistons fans. The fallout from the altercation includes misdemeanor charges of assault and battery against five players. Lawyers representing the players are claiming their clients are not guilty, in some cases because they acted in "self-defense."

If the same fight broke out in a Texas NBA arena, the players could (and almost certainly would) attempt to argue self-defense. Assuming the facts were exactly the same, I believe only some of the players would have a legitimate self-defense argument.

Under Texas law, a person is justified in using force against another when and to the degree he reasonably believes the force is immediately necessary to protect himself against the other's use or attempted use of unlawful force. The force used in self-defense must be proportional to the threat (i.e., someone who believes they are about to be lightly pushed cannot hit the person with a baseball bat and successfully argue self-defense).

Accordingly, it's unlikely that Ron Artest will be able to justify throwing haymakers in the stands simply because he was assaulted with a cup of beer. Artest's self-defense argument could be feasible when he was later assaulted in the stands or confronted on the court by fans. Jermaine O'Neal (charged with two counts of assault for striking a fan and security officer) wasn't personally provoked into the stands; however, he could argue that he was justified in using force in order to defend his teammates from being assaulted (called "defense of a third person"). O'Neal, however, landed a huge right hand against a fan who arguably did not pose a direct threat to him or others (i.e., O'Neal's knockout punch wasn't immediately necessary for protection). Similar logic could be applied for the other players involved.

It will be interesting to see whether the players' claims of self-defense are ultimately successful as there is a lot of room to debate the facts and circumstances surrounding each player's assault. Read next week's column to find out about whether the fans can successfully argue self-defense.

Please submit column suggestions, questions, and comments to thecommonlaw@austinchronicle.com. Submission of potential topics does not create an attorney-client relationship, and any information submitted is subject to being included in future columns.

Marrs, Ellis & Hodge LLP, www.jmehlaw.com.

The material in this column is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute, nor is it a substitute for, legal advice. For advice on your specific facts and circumstances, consult a licensed attorney. You may wish to contact the Lawyer Referral Service of Central Texas, a non-profit public service of the Austin Bar Association, at 512-472-8303 or www.austinlrs.com.

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