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Unjustified: The Practical Irrelevance of the Justification/Excuse Distinction


Gabriel J. Chin


University of California, Davis - School of Law

April 4, 2009

University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, Vol. 43, p. 79, 2009
Arizona Legal Studies Discussion Paper No. 09-02

Abstract:     
For decades, Joshua Dressler, Paul Robinson, Reid Fontaine and others have debated the distinction between justification and excuse defenses. "Justifications" represent good behavior, while "excuses" relieve criminal liability for socially undesirable behavior for policy reasons. Building on the critiques of Kent Greenawalt and Mitchell Berman, this essay proposes that claims for the practical importance of the debate have not succeeded.

The best argument is Joshua Dressler's claim that a robust justification/excuse distinction will send clear moral messages about acquittals. But because acquittals are intrinsically ambiguous, they cannot be used to derive moral judgments. First, because clear cases of innocence or meritorious defense are disproportionately screened out before trial, acquittals disproportionately represent near-convictions. Also, even replacement of opaque not guilty verdicts with special verdicts would send clear messages only if the new verdicts are morally precise. However, "excuse" defenses can be satisfied by "justified" conduct and vice versa, e.g., the Model Penal Code's "justification" of erroneous uses of force based on simple but less than gross negligence. In addition, there are seemingly intractable debates about categorization of defenses. Assigning acquittals to pigeonholes that even specialists dispute cannot send clear moral messages.

Other rationales for the practical importance of the distinction, such effects on accomplice or aider and abettor liability of third parties, do not reflect the law under the Model Penal Code or other modern approaches.

This essay is part of a symposium at the University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform on Reid Fontaine's work.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 38

Keywords: Criminal law, defense, justification, excuse, criminal law theory, self-defense, Model Penal Code

JEL Classification: K14

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Date posted: January 29, 2009 ; Last revised: April 17, 2011

Suggested Citation

Chin, Gabriel J., Unjustified: The Practical Irrelevance of the Justification/Excuse Distinction (April 4, 2009). University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, Vol. 43, p. 79, 2009; Arizona Legal Studies Discussion Paper No. 09-02. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1334291

Contact Information

Gabriel Jackson Chin (Contact Author)
University of California, Davis - School of Law ( email )
Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall
Davis, CA 95616-5201
United States
520-401-6586 (Phone)
530-754-5311 (Fax)

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