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What constitutes self defense in New York?

Self Defense and the Law

You’ve just disarmed and kneed an aggressive assailant to the ground. There’s blood, he’s injured. You’re safe. But the cops are on the scene and somehow you’re the one arrested. What happened? Aren’t you justified in using self-defense?

The short answer is it depends.  Once arrested and you become a defendant in a criminal case against you, your actions will be scrutinized. Was your use of force justified? Was your perception of the threat reasonable? Did you have a duty to retreat?

Although the above scenario is hopefully not one Krav Maga NYC practitioners should ever experience, it is important to understand your state’s laws on self-defense. This article will discuss the rules in New York that have been established by the highest courts in the state.

Justification Defenses

The highest court in New York has held that “if the use of force is justified, it cannot be criminal at all.” That means if someone is charged with a crime, let’s say assault or manslaughter, there may be a JUSTIFICATION defense to the criminal charges. Simply said, the actions that may have caused injury were justified and the defendant must be acquitted of the criminal charges.

There are many theories of justification under New York Penal Law sections 35.15 (defense of self; defense of third person; defense against certain crimes), 35.20 (defense of premises), 35.05 (by public servants; as emergency measure), 35.10 (by parent/guardian; by various professions.)

The “Reasonable Belief” Standard

Let’s put it this way, if you’re on trial the question will become was it reasonable for you to believe you were in actual danger? Was it reasonable for you to believe you needed to use the specific self-defense tactic against your assailant?

The jury will look at whether you, the defendant, reasonably believed that the assailant was about to use physical force (or deadly physical force) against you, and therefore you were justified in responding in kind. This requires a jury to assess what was reasonable to you. Reasonableness is determined from the point of view of the particular defendant. The question then becomes “what would a reasonable person do in defendant’s circumstances at the time of the incident?” Did the defendant subjectively believe that the use of physical force (or deadly physical force) was necessary in self-defense?  Was that belief objectively reasonable? So: what is taken into consideration is what a reasonable person in those circumstances and having defendant’s background and experiences would have concluded.

Was There Really a Threat?

If a defendant reasonably believed he or she was in danger, that deadly physical force was about to be used, then self-defense is justified. The mere display or brandishing of a weapon may in itself constitute “use” of deadly force under some circumstances. Likewise, even a verbal threat to use a gun, even when no gun was displayed or recovered, could qualify as deadly physical force. Even an innocuous item, depending on how it’s used, may constitute deadly physical force.

To What Extent Could Deadly Force Be Used for Self Defense?

Let’s say the assailant came at you with a knife. Quickly there’s a struggle for control of the knife and once it’s in your hands you use it against your attacker. Aren’t you justified in using the weapon? Under some circumstances, a defendant who has obtained control of an assailant’s weapon can be justified in using it even after the assailant has been disarmed when the assailant continues to struggle for the weapon.

Basically, deadly force could be justified if deadly force is being threatened, or used, against you. However, keep in mind, deadly force cannot be used against an initial aggressor who only used ordinary physical force.

Now let’s say the situation ends very badly for your assailant. His injuries are serious, maybe fatal. Do the injuries negate your self-defense justification defense? They shouldn’t. The rule is that the court must focus on the nature of the attack itself, not on its result. But for example let’s say you punched your assailant in the face but happened to fracture his orbital bone, would a court consider this as you using deadly physical force or ordinary physical force? Arguably a punch to the face should be considered ordinary force even if the result was fatal.

The legal rules of self-defense are ever-changing. Ultimately, at the core is the idea of what is reasonable self-defense in any situation. Since dangerous confrontations can get heated quickly, adrenaline starts pumping, and tempers escalate, it’s clear to understand how each person could react differently, erratically, possibly irresponsibly. To those practicing Krav Maga, what’s important to keep in mind is that in those situations you need to be the one in control in order to exercise self-defense within the law. Remember only do what is absolutely necessary in the situation to get away alive.

For more in-depth information do an Internet search for New York Penal Law § 35.15; People v. McManus, 67 N.Y.2d 541 (1986); People v. Wesley, 76 N.Y.2d 555 (1990); People v. Goetz, 68 N.Y.2d 96 (1986); People v. Magliato, 68 N.Y.2d 24 (1986); People v. Huntley, 59 N.Y.2d 686 (1983)

By Amy Dallas.