Reasonable Belief Standard

People v. Goetz

497 N.E.2d 41 (N.Y. App. 1986).

Goetz was charged with attempted murder, assault and weapons possession charges. Dismissed and appealed.


Was the trial court wrong to dismiss based on the statements made by the prosecutor that an objective standard ought to be included in the defense?

In other words, is this a wholly subjective test or is there an objective part of it?


“A person may not use deadly physical force upon another person under circumstances specified in subdivision one unless (a) He reasonably believes that such other person in using or about to use deadly physical force… or (b) He reasonably believes that such other person is committing or attempting to commit a kidnapping, forcible rape, forcible sodomy or robbery”

  • NY Penal Law § 35.15(2)


There is an objective standard here. Reversed.


The defendant had been robbed and injured in the past and was riding the subway. The four boys got onto the subway, the only possible weapon they had was a screwdriver. They sat down and sometime later two of the boys approached the defendant and said “give me five dollars.” No weapon was presented. The defendant then got up, shot at the four boys one by one, surveyed the scene, saw that he missed one and shot him again. Some made a full recovery while the last boy was paralyzed.

His defense was that he was afraid of being robbed and seriously maimed in the process (due to past experience).

The prosecutor had read the charges, a juror asked what “reasonably believes” means, the prosecutor responded with a “reasonable man” and the trial court dropped the charges saying that the test was wholly subjective, and no element of objective should be introduced.


The court here disagrees with the analysis of the trial court. The legislature had reviewed the MPC when they had revised their penal laws. Although they adopted most of the MPC, they removed the wholly subjective element by adding in the word “reasonably” in front of “believes”. So, we can consider the circumstances of the individual (subjective), but we must also examine what a reasonable person would do given those circumstances (objective).

Additional Notes

Under the MPC, “belief” is entirely subjective. In this case, the reasonableness adds an objective approach to the test. The only exception to this is retreat. Retreat is examined entirely by a subjective standpoint.

As a matter of policy, it is helpful to have an objective standard. This is because if something is subjective, there may be a lot of variation between what a person may constitute a belief.

However, there are still subjective characteristics that can be used under this objective standard. For instance, they can look at the defendant’s past experiences, physical attributes of the aggressor, and the physical movements of the aggressor.

  • What were they holding?
  • How old are they?
  • What were they wearing?
  • How they made their statements?

Should we consider race?

What happens if you have a subjective belief but the action was unreasonable? Often times that is going to result in a being convicted of a lessor crime. This is because the mens rea for a higher crime may not be present (i.e. Murder may require malicious and a belief, even unreasonable, may make it manslaughter).


The argument to consider race: At the time, the majority of people believed that most violent crimes were committed by young black males. So, would it be reasonable for society to believe that?

The argument to not consider race: Statistics can be affected by where efforts are made, how often crimes are reported, how often arrests are made, etc. In other words, we want to avoid stereotyping because of race.

Battered Woman Syndrome

Note the following cases are the same. The first was argued in front of the appellate court while the second was argued in front of the Supreme Court of North Carolina.

State v. Norman

366 S.E.2d 586 (N.C. App. 1988).

Assuming defendant was charged with murder. Lost at trial court and appealed.


Was there error in failing to instruct on self-defense?

Whether the decedent’s passiveness keeps the defendant from making a self-defense argument.


Reasonable belief that there was deadly threat and reasonable belief that the force used was necessary to prevent that. In cases of extreme circumstances, this can apply to a victim who was passive in their aggressive tendencies for a moment.


Was entitled to a self-defense instruction. Reversed


The defendant was a woman who was greatly abused by her husband. Very gross, disgusting, and extreme abuse. Among the abuse were several statements that he would kill her, her mother, and her grandmother. One day, after undergoing another bout of extreme abuse, the decedent took a nap and the defendant went to her mother’s house. She retrieved a gun and shot him in his sleep.

Expert testimony indicates that she was well beyond the breaking point, to say the least.


There is no doubt that she reasonably believed that her life was in danger. There is no doubt that she believed her actions were necessary. The only question is whether she could have made he defensive move while the abuser was in a passive state. The court here says that this is one of the few exceptions allowing her to make that defense.

Their argument was policy based. A defendant should not have to wait for the life threatening action of the abuser to act in self-defense.


This case reminds me of the analogy of two people racing across a desert. One threatens to kill the the other several times. He says that he is going to run ahead and poison the water at the Oasis so the defendant wouldn’t be able to refill the canteen to survive. So, in response, the defendant dumps out or poisons the canteen of those who threatened before he has a chance to kill. Can he make a self-defense claim?

In the case of the “battered wife syndrome” one could make a claim of self-defense, even when the victim is passive.

Additional Notes

Can you ever claim self-defense against someone who was currently passive (even when they were aggressive in the past and is certain that they will be violent in the future). Here, we are missing the element of “immediate”.

Here, the court says that the reasonable belief was met and in this severe of a case, the immediate danger does not need to apply.

State v. Norman

378 S.E.2d 8 (N.C. 1989).

Same facts, charge, and question as above.


Reasonable belief of death requires that the belief is imminent death. Imminent meaning about to happen.


Threat of death was not imminent, reversed.


The court argues that because she was able to grab and fire the gun shows that she was not in the battered wife syndrome. Therefore, there was no evidence that he was posing a significant threat at the time she pulled the trigger (sleeping on the bed). The trial court was correct in not providing a self-defense instruction.

Additional Notes

The court here takes issue with the appellate court’s ruling because of “imminence”. Imminent means that the defendant must show that they would have “immediately suffered death or serious bodily injury.” This is to be done as a last resort. We cannot look towards fear of death in the future, it needs to be a present harm.


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