I'm wondering what would have happened if one of the passengers who was witnessing the United incident unfold had stepped in and tried to defend the doctor, by force.

Note that I'm assuming the circumstances are exactly as they played out here; for example, the officer (if he was really a police officer) is not obviously dressed as one, so you'd have to make your own inference as to whether he was a police officer.

Specifically, I'm wondering what would happen if someone saw the doctor was being visibly injured and you punch/kick/etc. the officer to try to separate the two, in defense of the doctor. I imagine you'd be arrested and in jail until your trial, but I'm wondering what would happen afterward. Is this likely to be considered a defensive move and could you be found not guilty if you were taken to court? And if you're taken to court and found guilty, what would the consequences be like -- a few days behind bars maybe, or a years-long prison sentence?

Assume you're not trying to permanently injure the officer here, just some temporary/minor injuries so he gets the message. The goal is obviously to defend the other guy with a bit of force, not to attack the officer and make him fear for his life. So by the time the court date rolls around, he'll at most have a bruise, if anything.

(Editorial note: Yes, the better passenger-initiated solution would've been for someone else to give up their seat, but if for whatever reason you didn't do that and this was the only option left...)

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    Interfering with crew who are fulfilling their (often legally mandated and/or supported) duties is itself an offence in many places, so assault or not, your hypothetical defender is getting a record anyway.
    – user4657
    Apr 14, 2017 at 6:51
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    @Nij: (a) This guy obviously wasn't a crew member though. Would you still be found guilty of interfering with the crew indirectly? (b) This doesn't make sense... if a crew member needlessly punches you to make you straighten your seat then you just have to suck it up or you'd be guilty of defending yourself against a crew member fulfilling their duties? (c) Even if the cards are against you here, it'd be nice to have some idea of what the penalty is like. If it was just a few days in prison it might seem worth it for saving this guy a broken nose, but if it's a couple years, maybe not..
    – user541686
    Apr 14, 2017 at 6:58
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    Punching people isn't necessary to make them straighten the seat. Quelling resistance so that they can be removed from the aircraft, might be necessary. They're totally different situations - but even refusing to straighten the seat can be illegal, it's disobeying a crew instruction for safety.
    – user4657
    Apr 14, 2017 at 7:03
  • @Nij why are we talking about crew? The people who assaulted the passenger were police.
    – phoog
    Apr 14, 2017 at 7:14
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    @Nij: it's a question because I don't know the answer? I'm not a law student... and it's not clear to me if you'd even know that these are officers are not. In fact I'm still not sure. Would someone like a TSA agent count as a police officer? Who was this guy anyway?
    – user541686
    Apr 14, 2017 at 7:20

1 Answer 1


I suspect that you would not be convicted in the present case, because the jury would be sympathetic to the plight of the person being dragged out and unsympathetic to the behavior of the draggers. However, we should set aside the emotional elements of a jury trial and focus on legal principles. The basic question is whether a person has the right to use force to defend against an unlawful battery: "a person is privileged to use such force as reasonably appears necessary to defend him or herself against an apparent threat of unlawful and immediate violence from another". This right to defense also extends to defense of others. But it has to appear to be to unlawful, which is to say, you have to reasonably believe that the force used against the victim is unlawful. If a couple of thugs try to drag a person away, then an observer probably has a reasonable belief that this is an unlawful battery. But if a couple of police officers are observed dragging a person away (arresting him), apparently acting officially, the force used (up to a point) is apparently lawful and would not constitute battery of the victim. For defensive force against police to be lawful, the forced used by the police must be excessive.

The outcome then depends on what a reasonable person would conclude (this is where the jury or judge makes a rather subjective decision). If a reasonable person would conclude that the assailants are acting lawfully in arresting the person, then a higher bar must be clear to justifiably use force in defense of others. Wearing a jacket that says "Police" favors the "appears lawful" side (though if you happened to know for a fact that the person wearing the jacket is not a police officer, then the "police exception" would not be applicable). In the relevant case, the facts point to the appearance of a lawful arrest (even if were to turn out to be judged unlawful).

In the case that this is an apparent arrest, it would have to be the case that a reasonable person would find the force used to be excessive. Generally speaking, force used by officers is held to be reasonable, except in some cases where it is not. See for example the matter of Eric Garner, where the officers involved were not indicted. On the third hand, in this case, it might matter what the actual legal status of the "officers" is (they are not Chicago police).

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