Duress refers to coercion that causes a person to perform an act against his or her will. Duress is an important concept in both civil and criminal law that recognizes that a person who is acting without free will should not be held responsible for the conduct. In contract law, legal duress can invalidate a contract signed by a party. The rationale is that the formation of the contract was not undertaken freely and voluntarily. In other words, there was not a true meeting of the minds.
Duress, however, is not always easy to define and can vary by state. Because the law has an interest in upholding contracts to provide stability and predictability, it is generally difficult to invalidate them. Thus, tough negotiations or hard bargaining are insufficient under the law to constitute duress.
Duress exists when a person has been wrongfully forced or coerced into entering the contract. Physical coercion and threats of harm are common examples of conduct that constitute duress. Another form of conduct that might constitute legal duress includes wrongfully withholding a party’s property, or threatening to wrongfully withhold the property until a contract is signed. In rare circumstances, a court may find duress when one party takes unfair advantage of another’s party’s economic necessity. However, such claims usually do not prevail.
Duress can also be a defense in criminal law. In essence, the concept is that a defendant charged with a crime can be excused for his or her actions if they were committed under duress or coercion, as defined by law. The specifics of the defense and whether it can be invoked vary by state. The defendant normally must show that the defendant’s actions were reasonable under the circumstances and based upon the fear of immediate serious harm. For example, a bad actor may point a gun at someone and threaten to shoot unless the other party steals a car. The defendant then steals the car to avoid being shot. Duress would likely be available as a defense.
However, the defense may not apply to all crimes. For example, a statute may specifically except murder, or may except crimes more severe than that being threatened against the party claiming duress. Generally, the defense is not available if the defendant had an alternative to committing the crime.