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New York Self Defense – The Reasonableness Standard and New York’s Two-Pronged Test

The New York Defense of Justification usually known as self-defense, is a very important legal defense that is often used by experienced New York Criminal Defense Lawyers. Self-Defense can be a complete defense to charges as serious as Murder and Attempted Murder, Assault and Manslaughter.

New York Self-Defense is defined in the New York Penal Law under Article 35. Article 35 repeatedly uses the term reasonably, which is not defined anywhere in the New York Penal Law. The question in self-defense cases is very often what does it mean to act reasonably? In other words, reasonable according to whom? Does the law refer to the reasonable belief of a person being chased by another person wielding a machete? Or a Judge, safely in his or her chambers watching a video of the incident? These questions were answered in the landmark case of People v. Goetz.

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Bernard Goetz, a passenger on a New York City Subway Car was approached by 2 of a group of 4 men who were riding together on the same subway car. Although, two of the men were armed with screwdrivers, none of the men displayed the screwdrivers nor was there evidence that Goetz was aware the men had screwdrivers, according to the facts that were cited in the Decision of the New York Court of Appeals. One of the men that approached Goetz said “give me five dollars.” Mr. Goetz believed that the men were trying to rob him and drew an illegal handgun and fired at all four men. Mr. Goetz was indicted for 10 counts including 4 counts of attempted murder.

In a lengthy decision, the New York Court of Appeals, New York’s highest Court thoroughly analyzed the history of New York’s self defense law and specifically the meaning of the term “reasonably believes” found in Article 35 of the New York State Penal Law. Specifically, is it what the person subjectively believes or is it an objective standard based upon what a reasonable person would believe.

The Court of Appeals adopted a hybrid standard. The Court of Appeals articulated that it is in fact what a reasonable person would believe. However, the Court of Appeals specified that the standard is objectively what a reasonable person would believe given all of the circumstances that the accused person was in. All of the circumstances that the accused person was in is defined very broadly under New York law, including that person’s prior life experiences which could provide a reasonable basis for believing that another person’s intentions were to harm or rob the accused person. In addition, all of the facts and circumstances that the accused person was aware of including how close they were, the relative size of the attackers, their position, how many bystanders were around, and any other factors that could demonstrate to a finder of fact whether or not the accused persons action were objectively reasonable.

In essence, this hybrid standard is both objective and subjective in that it asks a finder of fact to get into the accused person’s mind, analyze the person’s life experiences which could have a bearing on how the accused perceived the situation that the accused person was in and put themselves in the accused person’s shoes before they determine whether the person’s belief that they were being attacked was reasonable.

Self-defense cases can be both serious and complex. When everything is on the line, contact lawyers that have experience and a proven record of success in handling complex cases. If you or a loved one has a self defense case contact the lawyers at Tilem & Associates for a free consultation.

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