Subway Self-Defense in New York

Jason Goldman
February 23, 2024

Table of Contents

Undoubtedly, post-Covid New York has seen an up-tick in homelessness, which has naturally spilled over to subway drug use and crime. With that, New York City has seen a handful of high-profile subway encounters and incidents. The most noteworthy and talked about cases within this realm are Jordan Williams and Daniel Penny.

The Case of Jordan Williams

During June of 2023, Mr. Williams was riding on an evening subway with his friend when another individual – Devictor Ouedraogo – entered the subway car and began threatening various passengers. Mr. Ouedraogo took his shirt off and walked aggressively up and down the subway car, screaming in the face of passengers and threatening to assault many of them. Those threats became physical when Mr. Ouedraogo engaged with Mr. Williams and his friend, pulling his friend’s earring out and punching and choking Mr. Williams shortly thereafter. While being choked out, Mr. Williams was able to reach into his pocket, grab a small knife, and poke Mr. Ouedraogo once in the chest area. Mr. Williams was able to get away, promptly dropped the knife, and Devictor Ouedraogo ultimately staggered away and was later pronounced dead due to the laceration.

Despite clear-cut self-defense, Mr. Williams was arrested within minutes and was prosecuted, charged with Manslaughter and other related charges. The Law Offices of Jason Goldman had the opportunity to represent Mr. Williams and was successfully able to first have Mr. Williams released on his own recognizance at his arraignment and bail hearing – hence, no bail was set and Mr. Williams was free to defend this case from the outside. Within hours, our office began conducting a counter-investigation, gathering videos from the subway as well as taking statements and affidavits from various witnesses on the subway car – all of whom stated that Mr. Williams was acting in self-defense of not only himself but of the other passengers. 

Mr. Williams’ case was presented to a grand jury by the government. Importantly, because of the counter-investigation conducted by our office, the above-mentioned eyewitnesses also testified, as did Mr. Williams himself. Upon hearing and seeing all of the evidence put forth, the grand jury declined to indict Mr. Williams and all of his charges were dismissed. Crucial to Mr. Williams’ defense was that he acted in reasonable self-defense, only using the knife one time during a 15-second encounter to get himself and others to safety. Consistent with New York Self-Defense laws – as expanded upon below – Mr. Williams did not initiate the encounter (he was not the aggressor). Likewise, Mr. Williams originally tried to retreat to safety and tried to refrain from using any force – yet, it was only when Mr. Ouedraogo choked Mr. Williams and reached towards his own pocket (indicating a potential weapon), did Mr. Williams act to defend himself.

Please see our Press page for more information on our successful defense in this matter.

The Case of Daniel Penny

One of the most high-profile cases in New York State history is pending in Manhattan: The People of the State of New York vs. Daniel Penny. This matter stems from an incident which took place aboard a Brooklyn-bound train during May of 2023 in the afternoon. During that time, Jordan Neely, an individual with documented mental health history and a fairly significant criminal history, began acting in a similar, violent fashion. Mr. Neely stalked the subway car, threatening almost every passenger and yelling that he was ready to kill someone, even if it meant getting life in prison. Reports have indicated that passengers – many of them lifelong New Yorkers – feared for their lives at that moment. At some point during the chaos, Daniel Penny intervened and defended himself and others from Mr. Neely’s violence by placing him into a restraint until the train could pull into its next stop and law enforcement could be alerted. During that “hold,” Mr. Neely ultimately lost his breath and was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. 

Following a thorough investigation and video surveillance review, Mr. Penny was charged with Manslaughter by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.  Mr. Penny has been indicted and awaits trial. While many of the finer details and important facts are still being revealed, the jury is likely to hone in on various issues at trial:

  1. Did any sort of preexisting condition or drug use cause (or partially cause) Mr. Neely’s death? To this end, the autopsy report and the testimony of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is going to be critical at trial.
  2. Did Mr. Penny act in reasonable self-defense to the extent that he engaged with Mr. Neely and restrained him? To this end, what exactly was Mr. Neely doing or even threatening to do in the minutes and seconds leading up to his engagement with Mr. Penny? Was Mr. Penny justified in using reasonable force (his hands) to defend himself and others?
  3. Did Mr. Penny’s training within the military factor into what type of hold he placed Mr. Neely into? Because of this training and experience, will the prosecution argue that Mr. Penny’s hands are, in this sense, a weapon or even deadly physical force? On the other hand, will Mr. Penny’s lawyers argue that Mr. Penny’s training and experience meant that he put Mr. Neely into a non-deadly hold and the death only resulted because of some other health factor beyond Mr. Penny’s control?

What Self-Defense Weapons are Legal in New York?

With these incidents becoming more common, New Yorkers have been asking if they are permitted to carry certain self-defense weapons on the subway – knives, pepper spray, or other items.

New York Penal Law 265 and 265.01 govern criminal possession of a weapon in our state (criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree). To that end, Penal Law 265.01 specifically notes that it is illegal, in and of itself, for someone to possess a “gravity knife, switchblade knife ... metal knuckle knife.” Hence, possessing one of these items is illegal in New York even if the item is not being used against another. 

On the other hand, certain items such as a “dangerous knife ... razor ... or any other dangerous or deadly instrument or weapon” are illegal if possessed with the intent to use the same unlawfully against another. Hence, this second subset of items are only illegal if being used unlawfully against another. The possession itself is not illegal.

As one can see, even the statute governing criminal possession of a weapon in New York is not clear-cut and is subject to litigation during pre-trial and trial phases. An experienced criminal defense attorney can help sort through what is allowed and what is not allowed in certain circumstances.

Is Self-Defense Legal in New York?

Contrary to popular belief, New York State does allow for self-defense and/or a justification defense pursuant to New York Penal Law Section 35 and 35.15. Indeed, in its most common form, an individual in New York may use force (or deadly physical force) upon another individual when, and to the extent that, he/she reasonably believes it to be necessary to defend himself/herself [or someone else] from what he/she reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of [unlawful] deadly physical force by such individual.

Notably, the statute includes special definitions for physical force and deadly physical force. The statute also includes special definitions for “reasonably believes.” Other carve outs are included as it pertains to who the initial aggressor was and if the person who ultimately used force had the opportunity to retreat to safety.

Handle Self-Defense Claims with the Law Office of Jason Goldman

New York self-defense laws are tricky and certainly difficult to consider while in the heat of the moment. Yet, the laws are more rigid than other states and many individuals – Daniel Penny, Jordan Williams, and countless others – unfortunately find themselves fighting this matter in court after an arrest. 

If you are currently being charged with assault, attempted assault, attempted murder, manslaughter, or murder, you may have a valid self-defense claim which needs to be litigated properly at trial in order to be acquitted. Contact the Law Offices of Jason Goldman.