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Earlier this year, Mike Tyson was recorded assaulting another airplane passenger after the victim "harassed" and threw a water bottle at Tyson. The victim apparently needed medical attention; however, no charges were filed:

Authorities will not file criminal charges against former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson after he was recorded on video punching a fellow first-class passenger aboard a plane at San Francisco International Airport last month, prosecutors announced Tuesday.

The San Mateo County District Attorney's Office said it has closed the case and decided against pursuing charges based on "the circumstances surrounding the confrontation."

Does this mean that if someone is harassing me, if I retaliate and assault him, the law will side in my favor because I was provoked? And if so, to what extent do I need to be "harassed" for assault be considered justified defense?

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    Throwing a water bottle means that it probably was no longer harassment but assault (from the passanger against Mike Tyson).
    – SJuan76
    Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 8:00
  • On a scale from zero to ten, how much were you harassed or provoked? And on a scale from zero to ten, how much did you retaliate? Could you have walked away, would you have been expected to walk away? (One quarter into a dinner at a very expensive restaurant, walking away would be expensive. On an airplane, walking away would be impossible). First the police, then a prosecutor, then a judge and jury will decide if that "assault" was justified.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 11:39
  • See en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_of_self-defense
    – sourcream
    Commented Nov 6, 2022 at 14:25

2 Answers 2

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The general rule is that force may be legally used in defense of self. I will draw on RCW 9A.16.020, other jurisdictions say essentially the same thing. The relevant parts are:

(3) Whenever used by a party about to be injured, or by another lawfully aiding him or her, in preventing or attempting to prevent an offense against his or her person, or a malicious trespass, or other malicious interference with real or personal property lawfully in his or her possession, in case the force is not more than is necessary

Curated internet videos don't tell the whole story, but for the sake of argument I will assume that Mr X chucked a bottle at Tyson, and Tyson proceeded to punish him with his fists. Both parties thus committed a crime.

The new report indicates that there will be no prosecutions "based on 'the circumstances surrounding the confrontation'", which I take to include all of the available evidence. Prosecution for a crime is discretionary. There is no requirement at a prosecutor file charges in every instance where (in the prosecutor's professional opinion) a conviction can be secured.

The abstract law is clear: both parties committed a crime. The abstract law is also clear that a prosecutor has discretion to decide whether to prosecute.

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  • Right. The issue I have here is the false equivalence of the two transgressions. While they may both be offenses, throwing a bottle is not the same as punching someone repeatedly. The punishment (that Tyson responded with) doesn't seem to fit the crime.
    – cine
    Commented Dec 8, 2022 at 21:24
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First because of general confusion of terms, and jurisdictions, if charges were brought against Mike Tyson, he would be charged with Battery where as the person who threw the water bottle would could be facing assault or battery depending on the severity of the impact (I would go with Battery personally because a water bottle can be painful when thrown and Mike Tyson needs more brain damage like he needs another face tattoo.). That said, I'm not sure which state this is and assault covers a broad range of crimes BUT Battery is always "injurious physical contact with another" while assault typically is "unwanted physical contact" in addition to threats of violence and other unwelcomed behavior (In jurisdictions where there is no codified harassment law, assault typically covers the crime a harassments law already covers).

All that said, the United States does recognize Self-Defense as an affirmative defense to all criminal charges, though again, it depends on the state as to the specific definition. In the general, Self-Defense permits the use of physical force up to and including lethal force if the intent is to stop a crime in progress, and the person using self-defense applies the absolute minimum amount of force to prevent the crime (I.E. In the United States, pointing a gun at someone is typically a crime of Aggravated Assault. However, if you point the gun at someone who is committing a crime to get them to stop a crime in progress, then it is not a crime. If the person trying to commit a crime backs off because of a gun pointed at them and is shot anyway, than the gunman has no claim of self-defense because the goal of stopping the crime was achieved by merely pointing the gun. It's only if the criminal refused to stop can the lethal force be considered the minimum amount of force.). Self-Defense is a bit of a misnomer as the principle nominally covers the use of force in defense of others and of propery. Some Jurisdictions also have a "Duty to Flee" rule that requires that the person invoking self-defense should only do so when there is no way they could possible leave the situation without violence, but the vast majority of states are "Stand your ground" which does not require you to consider leaving the scene of a crime in progress to use Self-Defense. It should also be confused with Castle Doctrine which holds that within private property you have lawful access to, you always have an immediate right of self-defense against any intruder. Castle Doctrine is federal law.

All that said, I would say Tyson's self defense claim may have merit, but is not a guarantee. He was certainly assaulted, possibly battered, and this escalated from harassing behavior. That said, Tyson need not have claimed self-defense for the charges to be dropped. Rather the police or the prosecutor involved in the case elected not to press the matter because they realized Tyson might have a self-defense claim if the case went to trial. Police and Prosecutorial discretion allows the police to not file charges unless they believe a crime actually happened and allows Prosecutors to drop the case because they do not think they can win at trial (90% of all criminal cases are resolved without trial in the United States because a trial is very costly and time consuming. Since the prosecutor has a limited budget, they often will get convictions by plea deals. The most common tactic is to offer to charge a less severe crime if the suspect agrees to plea guilty and not take the matter to court. Remember how I said Mr. Water was certainly guilty of harrasment and assualt, but probably guilty of battery? A prosecutor would tell them that if they wish to fight it in court, the prosecutor is going to go for broke and prosecute them for all three crimes. However, if they plead guilty, the prosecutor will drop the battery charge and may modify the assault to a misdemeanor rather than a felony or drop it entirely and just charge harassment. Since battery is a very serious crime, but assault is broad and usually comes with a felony and misdemeanor level of charge (the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor is that the in the later, the jail can by law has to be fixed, typically no more than 12 months).

In the case of Tyson, his first crime while clearly battery, is questionable as the level of force used may have been excessive. The key word, from the prosecutor's perspective, is may. It may have been excessive, but it may have not been... in order to win, the Prosecutor will have to convince twelve people that someone who was antagonizing Mike Tyson on an airplane did not deserve to be punched to such a degree that he needed medical attention. All Mike Tyson has to do is convince one of those people that flying is stressful and the "victim" was treating Tyson in a manner that no one should be treated on an airplane, no matter how stupid their face tattoo is and that there was no lesser amount of force that could be applied to stop this outrage as the man was clearly going to escalate. The prosecutor is probably realizing that, crime or not, the jury is going to probably side against the guy who played stupid games and won a stupid prize, and acquit Mike Tyson. What's more, the decision at trial will become case law in the jurisdiction. Given that the defense is likely to win, this means all future cases that are similar will have to have similar outcomes. Which means it's harder to prosecute similar but more impactful cases in the future. Let's say an identical scenario happens on the plane, but instead of Tyson, the celeb in question is Chuck Freakin' Norris, who instead of punching the guy, round house kicks him instead, the force of which causes the harrassing person to promptly explode on impact, which is probably fatal (please note I'm heavily leaning into memes now. The point is the next time it's fatal). There might be a jury more reliable to convict... but because Tyson won, the case can't be brought.

Even if the prosecutor believes Tyson was in the wrong, the likelihood that 12 random people believes the same exact thing is not certain, and may result in a case law that stops future prosecutions of similar but more serious cases.

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