Fri 20 Jan, 2023 Criminal Defense

Can You Punch Someone Back if They Punch You First?

In New York, you can legally punch a person who punched you first only if you reasonably believe that doing so is necessary to defend yourself from imminent unlawful force. In other words, you cannot legally punch a person back in retaliation. To legally punch a person back, you must reasonably believe that the person is getting ready to punch or strike you again.

Retaliation is Not Allowed

If a person punches you then steps back or retreats, and it’s clear he does not intend to punch again, then you don’t have reason to believe that unlawful force against you is imminent. In that situation, if you were to punch back, you would be doing so in retaliation, not to protect yourself. The legal system does not follow the “eye for an eye” principle. In other words, two wrongs don’t make a right in the eyes of the law.

If you are punched by a person and that person retreats, then the proper recourse for you under the law is to call the police to report the assault against you. If you were to punch back, your punch would not be supported by self-defense laws, so you could face legal trouble yourself, even though you were not the initial aggressor. 

Reasonable Belief That Force is Required

To legally punch back a person who threw the first punch, you must have a reasonable belief that physical force is necessary to defend yourself. This analysis requires both 1) that you subjectively believed force was necessary and 2) that belief was objectively reasonable.

For instance, if someone punches a victim and then runs away from the victim, the victim could honestly believe, in the heat of the moment, that he could punch back because force was necessary to defend himself. However, most people would likely conclude that punching back in that situation would not be objectively reasonable because the assailant was running away and did not pose a present threat. Therefore, in that scenario, even if the victim believed that force was necessary, such force still isn’t legally allowed if the victim’s belief wasn’t objectively reasonable. Ultimately, the question of whether a person’s belief was objectively reasonable will be a matter for the jury to decide after the defense attorney submits his arguments to the jury at trial.

A Person’s Experiences Still Affect the Reasonableness Analysis

Although a person’s belief that force is necessary to defend himself must be objectively reasonable for the force to be legally justified, when a jury considers whether the belief was objectively reasonable, it must consider that person’s unique background and experiences.

For instance, say Person A lives in a neighborhood with a lot of gang activity, and lots of people carry knives in their pockets. If Person A is attacked by Person B, and Person B steps back after the initial attack but then sticks his hand in his pocket as though he is trying to grab something—perhaps a knife—Person A’s own experiences and background may make him reasonably believe that Person B is grabbing a weapon to continue to assault Person A. In this situation, Person A may likely have a reasonable belief that physical force against Person B is reasonably necessary to protect himself from imminent, unlawful physical force.

A Person’s Knowledge About the Assailant Can Also Affect the Reasonableness Analysis

If Person A is attacked by Person B, and Person A personally knows Person B, and let’s say he knows that Person B gets in fights all the time and doesn’t retreat until he loses the fight and oftentimes pulls out a weapon, then even if Person B steps back a few feet after initiating a fight with Person A, Person A may reasonably believe that Person B has not withdrawn from the conflict, and therefore unlawful force against Person A is likely imminent. In that situation, Person A arguably has legal justification to use physical force against Person B. 

Of course, the specific details of the case make a difference, both in terms of what exactly Person A knows about Person B, as well as Person B’s specific conduct during the incident. An experienced criminal lawyer can assess the specifics of any case to determine the likelihood of a successful defense.


Although a person may legally use force against a person when he reasonably believes that it is necessary to defend himself, some exceptions do apply.

For instance, if you were the initial aggressor, then your use of force will not be legally permissible. For instance, if you punch someone, they then punch you back and appear to be getting ready to punch you again, if you were to punch that person—even though it is to defend yourself from the imminent additional punch—you would not have a legal defense, because you were the person who was the initial aggressor.

However, even if you did throw the first punch, the initial aggressor exception doesn’t apply if you withdraw from the encounter and clearly communicate that withdrawal to the other person. For instance, let’s say you punched someone first, they punched back, and then you walked away from the fight and said something like “it’s over” or “go away.” In that scenario, if they run over to you as you are walking away and start hitting you again, you can fight back to defend yourself because you had clearly withdrawn from the encounter.

Another exception—though rare—is if the force is used during an agreement to combat—in other words, a duel. If two people agree to fight each other, then even if a person is using physical force to defend himself from imminent physical force, then such force is not legally justified. Therefore, both people who agree to enter a duel could be likely to face criminal charges if the police were to become aware of the duel.

Need Help?

If you have been charged with a crime like assault, contact NYC criminal lawyer Cody Warner for a free consultation. He can assess your case to determine the best defense strategy.