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Published on 1/23/2024, 12:23:00 PM

What is Duress? How Could it Affect My Criminal Case?

Navigating the complexities of criminal law can be daunting, particularly when it comes to understanding legal defenses like duress. In this comprehensive guide, we delve into what duress means in the context of criminal law, how it's applied in court, and its potential impact on your criminal case.

Introduction to Duress

Duress is a legal defense used in criminal law to indicate that a defendant committed a crime because they were compelled to do so by an imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm. It's a defense that acknowledges that the crime was committed, but under circumstances that excuse the defendant's actions due to the pressure they were under.

Key Elements of Duress

The Maryland Pattern Jury Instruction on duress (MPJI-Cr 5:03) outlines four essential factors for a defense of duress:

  1. Immediate Danger: The defendant must have believed they were in immediate or impending danger of death or serious bodily harm.

  2. Reasonableness of Belief: This belief must be reasonable under the circumstances.

  3. Lack of Escape: The defendant had no reasonable opportunity to escape the situation.

  4. Direct Result of Duress: The crime was committed as a direct result of the duress.

Legal Implications of Duress

Duress is considered a complete defense to most crimes, excluding specific intent murder and attempted murder. If proven, it can lead to an acquittal as the defendant's actions are considered involuntary.

If a person is charged with specific intent murder, duress is not an absolute defense. Instead - a person would be convicted of voluntary manslaughter if a Defendant acted under duress. If the defendant had the intent to kill and acted under duress, the verdict would be guilty on voluntary manslaughter and not guilty of murder.

Duress in Maryland Law

In Maryland, the burden of proof in duress cases lies with the state, meaning the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that at least one of the four factors of duress was absent. This is based on Maryland's interpretation of the Mullaney v. Wilbur case and subsequent rulings.

Challenging Duress in Court

Duress can be a challenging defense to prove, as it requires a detailed account of the circumstances that led to the criminal act. Expert testimonies, evidence of the threat, and testimony of the Defendant can play a crucial role in substantiating a duress claim.

FAQs on Duress in Criminal Cases

Can duress be used as a defense for any crime?

Duress is a defense for most crimes except specific intent murder and attempted murder.

What must be proven for a duress defense to be successful?

The defendant must generate the issue that they believed they were in imminent danger, this belief was reasonable, there was no chance to escape, and the crime was a direct result of the duress. The burden then shifts to the State to disprove any of these elements.

Is it difficult to establish a duress defense?

Yes, proving duress can be complex and requires substantial evidence and expert legal representation.

How can a lawyer help if I'm claiming duress?

A lawyer can help gather and present evidence, provide legal expertise on duress, and argue the case effectively in court during a trial.

Analyzing Duress in Maryland Criminal Law

Duress vs. Necessity

It's crucial to distinguish between duress and necessity. While duress involves coercion by another person, necessity refers to situations where the choice of evils is due to physical forces or circumstances. Maryland courts, as seen in cases like State v Crawford and Graham v. State, have provided clarity on this distinction.

Real-Life Applications of Duress

Understanding duress through real-life scenarios can offer a practical perspective. Let's explore a couple of hypothetical situations:

  1. Threatened Bank Robbery: Imagine John is threatened by a criminal gang to rob a bank, or they will harm his family. If John commits the robbery under this immediate and credible threat, his actions might be considered under duress.

  2. Coerced Drug Trafficking: Sarah is threatened with serious harm if she does not transport illegal drugs for a drug cartel. Her situation could potentially be argued as duress, given the immediate threat to her safety.

These scenarios underscore the need for a nuanced understanding of the law and the specifics of each case.

Building a Defense Based on Duress

If you're considering a duress defense, it's essential to have experienced legal counsel. A skilled attorney can navigate the complexities of proving duress, ensuring that all relevant evidence is presented effectively. Visit our Criminal Defense page for more on how we can assist in building a robust defense.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1: Can duress be applied in theft cases?

Yes, duress can be a defense in theft cases if the defendant was forced to commit the crime under immediate threat.

Q2: Is emotional coercion considered in duress?

Duress primarily involves physical threats, but in some cases, extreme emotional coercion may be relevant.

Q3: How can I prove duress in court?

Proving duress involves demonstrating the immediacy of the threat, reasonableness of belief, lack of escape, and direct causation of the crime.


Duress is a complex but vital part of criminal defense in Maryland. Understanding its nuances, legal precedents, and real-life implications can significantly impact the outcome of a criminal case. For personalized advice and representation, contact us today.