Can a crime be justified?

The most common response to a criminal action is prosecution and conviction – and rightly so, if the person who committed the act is in fact guilty. But not all actions that we perceive as criminal are criminal. Some so-called crimes are committed for a valid, justifiable reason.

One of the more common defenses for crimes like assault, battery, and murder is that the act was committed in self-defense or the defense of another person. Sometimes this is true – sometimes it’s a stretch – but it does open the door to the possibility of a justified crime and therefore, the defendant is not guilty of the crime.

This is the case with justifiable homicide. Is the killing of another person ever justifiable? The law says yes. However, certain elements must be met. The defense must be able to show that the homicide did indeed satisfy those elements before the crime can be deemed justified.

Overview of Justifiable Homicide

Justifiable homicide is a non-criminal legal ruling that involves the taking of another person’s life under very specific circumstances that justify the action, meaning to prove it to be right, just, or reasonable. It could be an act of self-defense, or an execution handed down as a sentence for a capital crime and carried out by law enforcement. But even claiming self-defense requires the defendant to meet certain criteria according to the definitions and requirements set forth by the laws of the state where the act occurred.

Justified homicide is not the same as a homicide that is committed with diminished capacity or in the heat of passion. However, either of these two defenses could potentially be considered circumstances that might diminish the defendant’s responsibility or culpability in the crime. For instance, they could get the charge reduced from a murder charge to a manslaughter charge, but not justifiable where the defendant is found not guilty.

For a homicide to be justified, or blameless, the defense must show that it was reasonable for the defendant to believe that they, or another person, were in imminent and otherwise unavoidable danger of grave bodily harm or death by the deceased when the homicide was committed. A caveat to this is that the deceased was threatening to bring harm to the innocent, whether that was the defendant or the person they were protecting.

Federal Justifiable Homicide Law

There is no specific provision or definition written into federal law regarding justifiable homicide. This means that such cases, when tried in the federal courts, are tried according to the statutes of the state where the homicide was committed. The case may also be tried at the state level.

New York Justifiable Homicide Law

New York law provides extensive direction for justifying a crime. These are all applicable to homicide. Unless otherwise noted, under the law a person cannot use deadly force unless there is no other way that they can protect life or property.

New York Penal Law – Article 35  – Defense of Justification

  • 35.00 Justification; a defense
    • In any prosecution for an offense, justification, as defined in sections 35.05 through 35.30, is a defense.
  • 35.05 Justification; generally
    • Actions that would usually be considered illegal are not criminal under these circumstances unless they are deemed illegal under this article: 
      • Required or authorized by law or judicial decree or performed by a public servant in the exercise of their official duties, powers, or functions; or
      • The conduct is necessary as an emergency measure to avoid an imminent public or private injury…
  • 35.10 Justification; use of force generally
    • Using force on another person that would typically be a criminal offense is justifiable under these circumstances:
      • A parent, guardian, or other person entrusted with the care and supervision of someone under 21 or an incompetent person may use force
      • A warden or other authorized official of a jail, prison, or correctional institution may, to maintain order and discipline, use such force as is authorized by the correction law.
      • Anyone responsible for the maintenance of order in a common carrier of passengers, or Anyone acting under his direction, may use force when and to the extent that he  believes it necessary to maintain order
      • Anyone acting under a belief that another person is about to commit suicide or to inflict serious physical injury upon himself may use force upon such person…
      • A  licensed physician, or anyone acting under a physician’s direction, may use force to administer a recognized  treatment that they believe will promote the physical or mental health of the patient if 
        • the patient or patient’s parent or guardian consents 
        • when it is an emergency treatment and the physician  believes that any competent person would give consent 
      • Anyone may use  physical  force in self-defense, defense of a third person, in defense of premises, to prevent  larceny of  or criminal mischief to property, to effect an arrest, or prevent an escape from custody
  • 35.15 Justification; use of force in defense of someone
    • A  person  may use force when and to  the  extent, they  believe it is necessary to defend themselves or a third  person  from  what they  believe to be the use or imminent use of unlawful force by the other person, unless:
      • The person being protected provoked the other intending to cause physical injury to them; or
      • The person being protected was the initial aggressor. But if that person withdrew from the encounter and communicated that they were withdrawing to the other person and that person continues to use or threaten imminent use of unlawful force; or
      • The physical force involved is the product of a  combat by agreement not specifically authorized by law.
    • A  person  may  not  use deadly force under these circumstances specified in subdivision 1 above unless:
      • They reasonably believe the other person is using or is about to use deadly physical force. Still, they cannot use deadly force if they know they can maintain complete personal safety by retreating. However, they are not required to retreat if they are:
        • in his or her dwelling and not the initial aggressor; or
        • a police officer or peace officer or someone assisting law enforcement at their direction, acting under section 35.30; or
      • They believe the other person is committing or attempting to commit a kidnapping, forcible rape,  forcible  criminal sexual act or robbery; or
      • They believe the other person is committing or attempting to commit a burglary, and the use of deadly force is authorized by subdivision three of section 35.20.
  • 35.20 Justification; use of force in defense of premises and defense of someone in the course of a burglary
    • Anyone may use force when they believe it is necessary to prevent or terminate what they believe to be the commission or attempted commission of a crime involving damage to premises and committed by that person. They may use any degree of force, which they believe to be necessary. They may use deadly force if they believe it is necessary to prevent or terminate the commission or attempted commission of arson.
    • Anyone who is in possession or control of any premises, or is authorized to be on the premises may use physical force when they believe it is necessary to prevent or terminate what they believe to be the commission of or attempted criminal trespass upon such premises by that person. They may use any degree of force, which they believe to be necessary. They may use deadly force if they believe it is necessary to prevent or terminate the commission of or attempted arson, as prescribed in subdivision one, or the course of a  burglary or attempted burglary.
    • Anyone who is in possession or control or is authorized to be in a dwelling or occupied building and believes that another person is committing or attempting to commit a burglary of such dwelling or building, may use deadly force upon that person when they believe it is necessary to prevent or terminate the commission of or attempted burglary.
  • 35.25 Justification; use of force to prevent or terminate larceny or criminal mischief
    • Anyone may use force, (not deadly  force) when they  believe someone is committing or attempting larceny or criminal mischief concerning property other than premises 
  • 35.27 Justification; use of force in resisting arrest prohibited
    • A person may not use force to resist an arrest by law enforcement, whether authorized or unauthorized when it is  evident it is law enforcement
  • 35.30 Justification; use of force in making an arrest or in preventing an escape
    • Law enforcement, when arresting or attempting to arrest someone or prevent/attempt to prevent someone’s escape from custody or in self-defense or to defend a third person and they believe that person has committed an offense, may use force when and to the extent they believe it is necessary. Force may be used when:
      • The offense committed by such someone was:
        • a felony or an attempt to commit a felony involving the use or attempted use or threatened imminent use of  force  against  someone; or
        • kidnapping, arson, escape in the first degree, burglary in the first degree, or any attempt to commit such a crime; or
      • The offense committed or attempted by such person was a felony and that, in the course of resisting arrest therefor or attempting to escape from custody, such person is armed with a firearm or deadly weapon; or
      • Regardless of the particular offense which is the subject of the arrest or attempted escape,  the use of deadly force is necessary to defend the law enforcement officer or another person from what the officer believes to be the use or imminent use of deadly force.
    • Even though law enforcement is justified in using deadly force under circumstances in paragraphs (a)  and  (b)  of subdivision one it does not give justification for reckless conduct by law enforcement amounting to an offense against or concerning innocent persons whom they are not arresting or retaining in custody.
    • A  person who has been directed by law enforcement to assist them to arrest or to prevent escape from custody may use force, when and to the extent they believe to be necessary to carry out such officer’s direction unless they know the arrest or prospective arrest isn’t authorized. They may use deadly force when:
      • They    believe it is necessary   for self-defense  or to defend a third person from what they  believe to be the use or imminent use of deadly force; or
      • They are directed or authorized by the officer to use deadly force unless they know the officer is not authorized to use deadly force.
    • A private person acting on their account may use force, when and to the extent they  believe it necessary  to arrest or prevent escape from custody of someone they  believe has a crime; and may use deadly force for such purpose when they believe it is necessary to:
      • Defend themselves or a third person  from  what  they believe to  be  the use or imminent use of deadly force; or
      • Arrest a  person who has committed murder, manslaughter in the first degree, robbery, forcible rape, or forcible criminal sexual act and who is in immediate flight therefrom.
    • A  guard or law enforcement officer who is charged with the duty of guarding prisoners in a detention  facility…or while in transit to or from a detention facility, may use force when and to the extent that they   believe it is necessary to prevent the escape of a prisoner 

Justifiable Homicide vs Excusable Homicide

Many people confuse justifiable homicide and excusable homicide. A defining difference between the two is that justifiable homicide is based on circumstances that put the defendant in a position to defend themselves or another from harm, defend their property, or prevent a worse crime from occurring.

Excusable homicide is based on excuses that often indicate a defect either in the defendant or in the circumstances leading up to the homicide such as:

  • Diminished capacity 
  • Insanity
  • Duress
  • Mistake
  • Infancy (under the age of responsibility)
  • Entrapment

Excusable crime can result in acquittal or a reduced charge meaning a reduced sentence.

What Must a Criminal Defense Attorney Show for Justifiable Homicide

The 5th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects anyone accused of a crime. Most notably, it states that a person is innocent until proven guilty. This means that in the courtroom, a criminal defense attorney must show that the person who committed the homicide was justified in doing so, and the prosecution has the burden of proof to show that the defendant is guilty of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

The defense will use grounds of justification to show the defendant innocent of the crime. These grounds include:

  • Self-defense
  • Defense of others
  • Necessity (prevention of the occurrence of greater harm)
  • Law enforcement (based on laws that apply specifically to law enforcement)

The list is short, but if the justification is found to be true, the defendant cannot be charged and/or convicted.

If you have been charged with a homicide and you believe it is justified, you need experienced, solid legal representation right now. You need an attorney who will hit the ground running and will work hard to ensure that your rights are protected.

Don’t try to handle your case yourself or trust it to anyone who won’t work in your best interest. Let the attorneys at The Litvak Law Firm go to work for you. Our combined experience and education make us a formidable force in the courtroom.

Call today at (718) 989-2908 to schedule your free consultation and get professional legal representation right now.