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Defense of Duress and Coercion in Federal Criminal Cases

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Oct 23, 2023

Suppose you've been charged with a federal crime, and you committed the crime because someone threatened, intimidated, or forced you into doing something you would not have done otherwise. You may claim duress or coercion as a valid defense in that case.

Suppose you and your defense attorney can show that your circumstances qualify legally as acting under duress or coercion. In that case, you may be able to get the charges dismissed or at least have your sentence minimized.

Defense of Duress and Coercion in Federal Criminal Cases
You may be able to use a duress or coercion defense if you were forced to commit a crime.

To successfully use a duress defense, you must show that someone threatened that they would harm you if you did not commit an unlawful act and that you believed your life would be in immediate danger if you refused to commit the criminal act.

Your belief that your life was in immediate danger must have been reasonable. Further, a threat of future harm is insufficient to use this defense. Instead, a danger to life must have been immediate.

Simply put, using the legal defense of duress or coercion will depend on establishing that you committed the crime in question only because you had a reasonable fear that immediate serious bodily injury or death would occur if you did not commit the offense.

Further, there cannot have been a reasonable opportunity to avoid the injury. By raising this defense, you acknowledge that you committed the offense but still should not be found guilty.

Before a federal court instructs a jury about coercion, you must first present evidence that coercion or duress occurred. Suppose you can present a sufficient defense. In that case, the burden shifts to the prosecution to establish that no coercion occurred.  Coercion is often applied in drug crimes, but not crimes such as murder.

What is the Definition of Duress and Coercion?

Essentially, duress and coercion are two sides of the same coin: both involve a person being forced into committing a crime using threats or intimidation, most commonly threats of death or severe injury to the person or a loved one.

  • Duress refers to the person being threatened. Duress means that the person committing the crime only did so because they feared for their life, safety, or well-being if they did not comply with the other person's demands.
  • Coercion refers to the person making the threats. Coercion means someone else compelled you to commit a crime using force or intimidation.

Taken together, your defense is that someone coerced you into committing the crime, and as a result, you did so under duress.

Federal Sentencing Guideline Manual

Under 5K2.12, the coercion and duress policy statement says the following:

“If the defendant committed the offense because of serious coercion, blackmail, or duress, under the circumstances not amounting to a complete defense, the court may decrease the sentence below the applicable guideline range. The extent of the decrease ordinarily should depend on the reasonableness of the defendant's actions and on the extent to which the conduct would have been less harmful under the circumstances as the defendant believed it to be.

Ordinarily, coercion will be sufficiently serious to warrant departure only when it involves a threat of physical injury, substantial property damage, or similar injury resulting from a third party's unlawful action or a natural emergency.

The Commission considered the relevance of economic hardship and determined that personal financial difficulties and economic pressures upon a trade or business do not warrant a decrease in sentence.”

The Role of Duress and Coercion in Committing a Crime

People are often driven to commit crimes due to external pressures or threats, particularly when it comes to threats of injury or death. For example, an individual might be threatened with violence if they do not participate in a bank robbery.

In this case, the threat of physical harm would likely qualify as duress, and the person would not have committed the crime if it were not for that threat.

Similarly, someone may be coerced into committing a crime by involvement in a dangerous criminal organization or being held under false imprisonment.

Establishing Duress and Coercion as a Defense in Federal Crime

To claim duress or coercion as a defense, you and your defense attorney must establish the following three criteria as part of your defense:

You were directly and immediately threatened by death or serious bodily harm

In other words, you faced a clear, specific, and imminent threat, not something vague or potential in the distant future. The threat had to be of such a level that it involved your life or could cause serious physical harm. Note that in most cases, the threat of harm or death can also extend to someone you love or a close family member to qualify as duress.

You had a reasonable or well-grounded fear that the threat would be carried out

This is not about the threat but your belief in it. You must have genuinely feared that the threat would occur if you did not commit the crime. This means that any reasonable person in your situation would also have believed and feared the threat. Factors like the credibility of the person making the threat, their history, and their capacity to carry it are all considered.

You had no reasonable opportunity to escape the threatening situation

Finally, you must demonstrate that you had no realistic chance to escape the situation. This means you felt cornered, with committing the crime seeming like the only way out. Various factors can contribute to this assessment, such as the location of the incident, the presence or absence of others, the immediacy of the threat, and any attempts you made to escape.

Other things to note about this defense:

  • Duress or coercion cannot be used to defend against all crimes. For example, it is not a valid defense for murder charges in most situations. If you are charged with murdering your attacker for fear of harm, you would claim self-defense rather than duress.
  • For purposes of the law, the defense of duress or coercion only applies to the threat of death or serious bodily injury. If you committed a crime because someone threatened to reveal damaging information about you, the court would likely not accept duress as a valid defense.
  • Duress or coercion typically does not count as a valid defense if you knowingly put yourself into a dangerous situation. For example, if you voluntarily joined a known criminal organization and later committed a crime under their direction, this would likely not qualify for the duress or coercion defense.

You can contact our law firm for a case review by phone or via the contact form. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, California.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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