Most people know it is not illegal to defend yourself if attacked. That can be true even if you end up killing your attacker. The law has historically always recognized that it is not a crime to defend yourself. This issue was all over the press last summer with the Trayvon Martin case and the prevalence of “Stand Your Ground” laws in the United States. While most people can correctly guess that New York is not a “Stand Your Ground” state, they are probably clueless as to what the law in New York regarding self-defense actually is.
So when can you legally defend yourself if you are attacked in New York? There is absolutely no way I am going to be able to give a clear and concise answer to this question in this short blog post. But what I can do is give a short explanation explanation that would allow the reader an opportunity to generally get the idea of self-defense law in New York.
First off, laws regarding the doctrine of self-defense are legally referred to as “justification.” So when a person asserts self-defense, he is essentially saying that he did commit the act, however, he was justified in doing so. In New York, the law of justification is codified in Penal Code Article 35. The key to understanding justification is to recognize that it is all about proportionality and reasonableness. Your response to an attack has to be proportional to the attack that you are defending yourself from. For example, if a person comes up to you and starts to punch you in the face, you may be justified in punching him back to defend yourself. However, in that same hypothetical, you would not be justified in taking out a gun and shooting your attacker dead. However, if your attacker pulled out a knife you may be justified in shooting him. It all depends. The attack or threat of attack must also be imminent. So if a local mafioso comes to your store and says he wants weekly payments or he’ll break your legs, you can’t use justification in this context. You also can’t use justification if you are the initial aggressor.
The key issue in determining whether you are legally entitled to defend yourself is whether you subjectively believe that you must use physical force to defend yourself AND whether your belief is objectively reasonable. In other words, not only do you need to actually believe that you need to use physical force, but a neutral and average person looking at the situation from your perspective must have come to the same conclusion. It is the existence of this second prong that usually allows prosecutors to defeat a claim of justification. For example, if a person truly believes that he is about be robbed by a panhandler who is asking him for change, he may still not be justified in shooting him dead if a neutral observer would conclude that his belief was not objectively reasonable.
As confusing as all of this is, when you are dealing with what the law calls “deadly physical force,” it gets even more confusing. You are allowed to attack your attacker as long as you are only using physical force. However, the law is different if you are going to use “deadly physical force.” Deadly physical force is defined as “physical force which, under the circumstances in which it is used, is readily capable of causing death or other serious physical injury.” There are two main differences between when you are allowed to use physical force and when you’re allowed to use deadly physical force. First, you can only use deadly physical force when you subjectively believe (and the belief is objectively reasonable) that deadly physical force is being used on you. Second, you CANNOT use deadly physical force if you can retreat to complete safety (hence no stand your ground). So if you are in a situation in which your attacker is running after you with a knife, but you are in a car, under New York law, you are guilty of murder if you get out of your car and kill your attacker if you could have safely driven away. The duty to retreat, however, does not apply in a situation in which you are in your home. This is called the “castle doctrine.” The doctrine stems from the idea that your home is your castle and you should be able to defend it if necessary without having to run away.
As I stated above, the law of justification is very complicated and what is written in this blog post is just a small sliver of it. There are many scenarios in which a person could or could not be be justified in using physical or deadly physical force, but what’s written above is the general gist of common situations where it may apply.