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Guest Column

August 17, 2013

How does one define self-defense?

The George Zimmerman case in Florida, and the public reaction to the jury’s verdict of non-guilty, has given rise to much public discussion of the laws that govern the use of deadly physical force in self-defense.

For those of us living in New York State, it is important to know that our laws are quite different than the laws of Florida. No one should base their actions on a misunderstanding of the relevant law or a belief that our law is synonymous with the law in Florida.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the case, George Zimmerman was a member of a neighborhood watch group in Sanford, Fla., who believed he saw a suspicious-looking youth on the street one evening. He called the police, and even though he was advised that he did not need to follow the young man, he did so. A confrontation ensued, during which Zimmerman claimed the young man, Trayvon Martin, repeatedly struck him in the face.

Zimmerman further claimed that Martin wrestled him to the ground, got on top of him and slammed his head into the pavement. Zimmerman was armed with a handgun, which he used to shoot and kill Martin. Zimmerman told the police he was in fear of his life when he shot Martin. Martin, a teenager, was unarmed and was walking home from a convenience store at the time of the incident.

In New York, generally speaking, a person may only use any physical force upon another person when, and to the extent, he or she reasonably believes such to be necessary to defend himself or herself from the imminent and unlawful physical force by another person. He or she may not do so if he or she is the initial aggressor and he or she provoked the imminent use of force against himself or herself.

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