Martial Arts in Court

Contrary to longstanding urban legend, black belts don't have to register their hands as deadly weapons. This myth is traceable to publicity stunts before professional boxing matches and to outlandish claims made in the movies. Nowhere in the modern world is there a legal requirement for trained martial artists to register with the authorities.

Martial-arts experience can influence the case against a defendant on trial for a violent crime, though. If he's a martial artist, he can expect investigators to bring up his background in an attempt to show that he had the training to cause harm - or the knowledge and experience to show restraint. Major considerations include whether the initial attack was provoked, whether either party acted in self-defense, and whether the martial artist used "reasonable force." Most jurisdictions allow lethal force only if a life is at stake. In the U.S., there's precedent for considering an attacker's martial-arts training in a self-defense claim; a court could even find that someone who shot an unarmed assailant he knew to be martial-arts master was acting in "self-defense." On the other side of the coin, muggers have brought assault charges against victims who've fought them off - and the more injured they look in the witness box, the better the chance of convincing a jury.

In the eyes of the law, the best policy is to avoid a fight. If you can't, then "reasonable force" - such as restraining your attacker without harming him - is second-best. In such a situation, the police might opt not to intervene or simply to send everybody home: no harm, no foul. Unnecessary force - for instance, striking a drunk and stomping him after he hits the ground, or using any weapon against an unarmed man - is an excellent way to attract serious police attention in even relatively lawless parts. Macho posturing isn't a great way to avoid legal trouble, either. Remarks such as "Even with that knife, he didn't have a chance against me!" and "I could kill a guy in three seconds flat!" aren't conducive to a successful defense.

Ultimately, the police, magistrates, judges, jury, etc., who examine the events leading up to a fight or an assault may or may not see things from the martial artist's perspective . . . and it's their judgment that counts. Lethal force or even unnecessary nonlethal force can mean prison time. The GM should keep all this in mind if the PCs in a modern-day campaign get too "karate happy."

These considerations might not apply in historical or fictional settings. In some game worlds, the nobility might possess absolute, life-and-death power over commoners. A commoner striking a noble, however lightly, might receive a death sentence. A noble killing a commoner to test his new sword technique might be guilty only of showing off - or at most of damaging another noble's property by slaying a valuable peasant.

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