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Jul 27, 2023 | April Xu

Self-Defense Laws: What Counts as Self-Defense in New York?

This article introduces you to self-defense laws and regulations in New York.

Hate incidents and hate crimes against Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) individuals have spiked during the pandemic. Based on Documented’s research on news consumption habits among the Chinese immigrants in NYC, public safety is the most consumed news topic. It is also the most urgent issue the Chinese community believes should be covered by the media. In the survey, many readers wanted to know about self-defense laws and resources. This article provides you with information about New York self-defense laws and regulations.

What is self-defense?

In general, the concept of self-defense is a legal term that refers to respecting the right of people to use force to protect themselves from harm. This right extends to the protection of others and, in some cases, to the protection of property.

Also Read: After Anti-Asian Hate: A Guide for Asians Recovering from Hate Crimes

Self-defense laws and regulations vary from state to state. Self-defense gives individuals in New York State the right to protect themselves and others from violence including assault and other violent crimes. The New York Penal Law, Article 35 defines under what circumstances a person may use physical force and even deadly physical force to effect an arrest, stop a crime, and defend himself or herself from force being used against the person or a third person.

Under the New York Penal Law Article 35, you may use physical force upon another person when and to the extent you reasonably believe such to be necessary to defend yourself or a third person from what you reasonably believe to be the use or imminent use of unlawful physical force by such other person.

Tilem & Associates points out in an article that the term “reasonably” is used twice in the law mentioned above. Both your belief that force is being used or about to be used and your belief that your use of physical force is necessary to stop the attack must be reasonable under the circumstances if you want to successfully use the defense of justification.

Also Read: Self-Defense Classes in NYC and Basic Self-Defense Moves to Learn

The above rule only applies to the use of physical force. A person may not use deadly physical force—the type of force that can result in a serious physical injury or death—unless this person has a reasonable suspicion that deadly physical force is being used or is about to be used on himself, herself or a third person. However, even under this circumstance, the law imposes on a person a “duty to retreat” before this person can resort to using deadly physical force if they can retreat with complete safety.

Duty to Retreat, the “Castle Doctrine” and “Stand Your Ground” laws

Let’s first understand the concept of Stand Your Ground. Stand Your Ground law, which is adopted in many states, says that when you are confronted with deadly physical force, you don’t have to retreat even if you can do so. According to an article by Criminal Justice Lawyer Cody Warner, if you are walking down the street and someone approaches you, pulls out a gun, and starts shooting at you, you don’t have to retreat. If you are armed, you can pull out a gun and shoot back so long as you reasonably think it’s necessary to defend yourself from the deadly physical force of the other person.

But New York generally imposes Duty to Retreat laws. So if you know that you can safely retreat with complete personal safety from a scenario described above, then you are obligated to do so and cannot use deadly physical force. So, the question isn’t whether you could in fact have retreated with complete personal safety, but whether you knew that you could safely retreat.

Although New York does not adopt stand your ground, it follows a similar doctrine called the “castle doctrine,” allowing individuals to use deadly force to defend their homes against intruders. The key distinction between these two is that the castle doctrine designates this justification for people in their homes, according to FindLaw. The rationale is that your home is “your castle” or safe refuge, and that you should not have to run away from your home when defending it against invaders.

When can you use deadly force?

Under the New York Penal Law Article 35, you may use deadly force when you reasonably believe the attacker is using or about to use deadly force. In most situations outside your own home, you have a limited duty to retreat. In particular, you may not use deadly force if you know that you and any others under attack can, with complete personal safety, retreat.

You may also use deadly force against a person who is in the process of committing a kidnapping, forcible rape, robbery, arson, or burglary of a residence or occupied building, according to an article by Joey Jackson Law. These crimes are considered heinous enough that you are allowed to shoot or club the offender in order to save the victim(s) from serious injury or death.

Use of physical force to make an arrest by a civilian

Tilem & Associates points out in an article that under New York Law, civilians (non-police or peace officers) are permitted to make citizen’s arrests for crimes actually committed in their presence. A civilian is permitted to use physical force (but not deadly physical force) when he or she reasonably believes that the force is necessary to effect the arrest or to stop the escape from custody of a person who he or she reasonably believes committed a crime or offense and who in fact committed the crime or offense. This means that in the situation where you are using physical force to make an arrest, it is not enough that you reasonably believe that the person committed a crime, you must be correct. You will not be able to use the defense of justification and you could be prosecuted if you made a mistake about whether the person committed a crime.

Generally, deadly physical force will not be permitted to be used to make an arrest by a civilian unless the person reasonably believes that such force is necessary to make the arrest of a person who has committed kidnapping, robbery, forcible sexual criminal act, forcible rape, burglary, manslaughter in the first degree or murder. Deadly physical force may also be justifiable if while you are making an arrest for a non-violent offense using non-deadly physical force, the perpetrator attempts to use deadly physical force against you or another person.

Self-defense justification

If you are facing self-defense related criminal charges, FindLaw notes that justification is a defense in the following situations:

  • Use of physical force when such conduct is required or authorized by law or judicial decree or is performed by a public servant exercising reasonable exercise of official duties, power, functions
  • Conduct necessary as emergency measure to avoid an imminent public or private injury
  • Parent/guardian may use physical not deadly force to maintain discipline or promote welfare for the child
  • Warden or other correctional official may use physical force to maintain discipline and order
  • A common carrier may use physical force to prevent death or serious physical injury
  • A physician may use physical force for treatment purposes
  • A person may use physical force in self-defense, or defense of a third party, premises, or to prevent larceny or in order to effect an arrest or prevent an escape from custody

The specific circumstances under which self-defense is used can lead to different legal consequences. If you have any relevant questions or are facing criminal charges related to self-defense, consult an attorney for expert legal advice.

This article is translated by Nancy Chen.

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