Unjustified: The Practical Irrelevance of the Justification/Excuse Distinction
38 Pages Posted: 29 Jan 2009 Last revised: 17 Apr 2011
Date Written: April 4, 2009
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.
Keywords: Criminal law, defense, justification, excuse, criminal law theory, self-defense, Model Penal Code
JEL Classification: K14
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation