Questions about the mutual combat defense in Florida domestic violence cases arose recently when video surfaced of UFC President Dana White slapping his wife, Anne, at a night club in Mexico on New Year’s Eve – after she slapped him.
The TMZ video showed the couple in a verbal altercation that turned physical, with Dana pushing Anne’s hand, Anne slapping Dana in the face, and Dana then slapping Anne twice in her face. The two continued to physically struggle with each other until they were separated by third parties. Both released statements after the fact saying nothing like this had ever happened before, they’d both been drinking too much alcohol, and were eager to move on.
Some have called for Dana’s resignation from his prominent public position, while certain media outlets and individual anchors have been criticized for “being soft” or “muted” in their reporting of the incident. But whatever professional consequences there are for what happened, few people are talking about criminal penalties for either spouse. Although domestic violence is illegal in Mexico, it’s unlikely authorities there will issue a warrant and demand extradition of either party here, considering no one was seriously hurt and both parties were aggressive toward each other.
If this same incident had occurred in Florida – and with video evidence, no less – it’s unlikely neither party would walk away with zero consequences. Still, some have asked whether the mutual combat defense may apply.
Florida Law Expressly Discourages Dual Arrests for Domestic Violence
Although both people involved in a Florida domestic violence case can be arrested for the same incident, F.S. 741.29(4)(b) strongly discourages dual arrests (where both parties are arrested for domestic violence). Instead, as our Fort Lauderdale domestic violence defense lawyers can explain, officers who believe two or more persons may have committed a misdemeanor or felony act of domestic violence are urged to identify the primary aggressor. Even if both people hit each other, the officer is supposed to figure out (usually after the fact, based on he-said-she-said statements) who was more at-fault.
Arrest is the preferred response – for the “primary aggressor” only. If the other person “acts in a reasonable manner to protect or defend oneself or another family or household member from domestic violence,” they should not be arrested.
If the domestic violence allegations involve a man and woman, police often identify the man as the primary aggressor. Technically, it can – and sometimes does – go the other way. However, size and strength disparities usually compel police to identify the man as the main aggressor. The primary aggressor is typically identified as the one between the two most likely to cause an injury and least likely to feel fear. But where both parties are equally involved, an attorney may suggest the mutual combat defense.
However, it’s not as simple as, “We both hit each other, so we should both (or neither) be in trouble.” It’s actually a more complicated defense than most people assume.
Mutual Combat as a Defense in Florida Domestic Assault Cases
There’s no singularly-accepted definition of “mutual combat” in all states for domestic violence. For example, in California, it doesn’t just mean both parties threw hands, but that there was mutual intent, consent, or agreement in proceeding with hostilities. The U.S. Coast Guard defines it as both people either agreed to enter the fight or it became mutual once it began. In Virginia, mutual combat means both individuals voluntarily and mutually agreed to enter into the physical altercation.
In Florida, the mere fact that both individuals landed blows doesn’t necessarily mean mutual combat can be used as a defense. Both parties can be injured – yet only one is found to have acted reasonably/in a way that’s justified. Alternatively, domestic violence may deemed as reciprocal, even though only one person was physically injured (because a person can commit battery without actually inflicting any detectible injuries on someone).
The most cut-and-dried case of mutual combat – where both parties consent to a physical altercation – would be a boxing match. Both sides clearly consent to engaging in a physical fight with each other in advance of that confrontation. That is not often the case with matters of domestic violence. And even if it starts out that way, it’s unlikely to apply in cases where someone gets seriously hurt (felony battery) because, “To what extent can someone agree to be seriously injured?”
Mutual combat is different than self-defense. In self-defense, one party uses reasonable physical force to repel an attack (or expected attack) from another person. In mutual combat, neither party can claim self-defense, and both are “wrongdoers.”
In general, retaliation is not self-defense, but more likely mutual combat. For instance, in the Virginia case of Washington v. Commonwealth, a husband and wife got into an altercation after drinking, the husband asked for car keys so he could get his cigarettes from the car, the wife was angry and slapped her husband in the face, and he responded by hitting her back. (Somewhat similar to what’s alleged in the Dana White incident.) The police noticed marks on the wife, and arrested the husband. The defense argued the husband’s actions were justified as self-defense, citing her initial slap. The court disagreed. There was no indication the wife intended to continue hitting her husband, and thus, his acts were in retribution – not self-defense.
If you are arrested for domestic violence in South Florida, it’s important that you contact a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible to explore any and all defense strategies that may be applicable.
Call Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
U.F.C. and Partners Reluctant to Speak On Dana White Slapping His Wife, January 5, 2023, By Kevin Draper, The New York Times
More Blog Entries:
When False Imprisonment Charge is Part of a Florida Domestic Violence Case, Dec. 28, 2022, Broward Domestic Violence Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog