Assault or Self Defense? The Arrest of Former Broncos Player Raises Tough Legal Questions

In teaching torts, we often discuss the vague line between self-defense and retaliation in cases of assault and battery. That issue will now be at the heart of a criminal charge against former Broncos cornerback Brendan Langley who was charged with assault after hitting a United Airlines employee. A partial video of the incident shows how murky the line can be in the use of self-defense. Literally a few seconds can make the difference if this charge is any indication.

Langley was arrested Thursday after he allegedly got into a fight with a United Airlines employee at Newark Liberty International Airport.

The video, which does not show how the altercation began, seems to show the United employee throwing the first punch. The employee has been reportedly fired. Yet, it was Langley who was arrested.

If the video is the full record of the physical portion of the altercation, it would appear that the employee was the initial aggressor. When he is struck, Langley has a right to defend himself. However, there is a slight delay before Langley steps forward to hit the employee. The police may be basing the charge on the fact that Langley seemed to pursue the employee.

In New Jersey, assault is defined in the following way:

2C:12-1 Assault.

2C:12-1. Assault. a. Simple assault. A person is guilty of assault if he:

(1)Attempts to cause or purposely, knowingly or recklessly causes bodily injury to another; or

(2)Negligently causes bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon; or

(3)Attempts by physical menace to put another in fear of imminent serious bodily injury.

Simple assault is a disorderly persons offense unless committed in a fight or scuffle entered into by mutual consent, in which case it is a petty disorderly persons offense.

There is no question that Langley causes bodily injury but how about self-defense or self-protection? That is defined below under New Jersey statute. Langley can clearly argue that he “reasonably believe[d] that such force is immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting himself against the use of unlawful force by such other person on the present occasion.”

Much of the exception to the use of protective force deals with home invasions or the use of deadly force. However, the law also states that, except for a couple of limiting provisions, “a person employing protective force may estimate the necessity of using force when the force is used, without retreating, surrendering possession, doing any other act which he has no legal duty to do or abstaining from any lawful action.”

Going back to the videotape, Langley may have been struck first and the employee repeatedly moves forward to reengage Langley. Clearly Langley could have retreated, but the Georgia law appears only to stipulate a duty to retreat in the use of deadly force.

The police may argue that, because of the separation before Langley responded, there was no reasonable belief that force was necessary. The fact that this was in an airport against an employee was also likely weighed heavily. However, it is hard to see why, if this video shows the first blow, the employee was not charged.  Either way, this makes for a messy prosecution case if it were to go to a jury.

Section 2C:3-4 – Use of force in self-protection.

Universal Citation: NJ Rev Stat § 2C:3-4 (2013)

2C:3-4 Use of force in self-protection.

2C:3-4. Use of Force in Self-Protection. a. Use of force justifiable for protection of the person. Subject to the provisions of this section and of section 2C:3-9, the use of force upon or toward another person is justifiable when the actor reasonably believes that such force is immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting himself against the use of unlawful force by such other person on the present occasion.

b.Limitations on justifying necessity for use of force.

(1)The use of force is not justifiable under this section:

(a)To resist an arrest which the actor knows is being made by a peace officer in the performance of his duties, although the arrest is unlawful, unless the peace officer employs unlawful force to effect such arrest; or

(b)To resist force used by the occupier or possessor of property or by another person on his behalf, where the actor knows that the person using the force is doing so under a claim of right to protect the property, except that this limitation shall not apply if:

(i)The actor is a public officer acting in the performance of his duties or a person lawfully assisting him therein or a person making or assisting in a lawful arrest;

(ii)The actor has been unlawfully dispossessed of the property and is making a reentry or recaption justified by section 2C:3-6; or

(iii) The actor reasonably believes that such force is necessary to protect himself against death or serious bodily harm.

(2)The use of deadly force is not justifiable under this section unless the actor reasonably believes that such force is necessary to protect himself against death or serious bodily harm; nor is it justifiable if:

(a)The actor, with the purpose of causing death or serious bodily harm, provoked the use of force against himself in the same encounter; or

(b)The actor knows that he can avoid the necessity of using such force with complete safety by retreating or by surrendering possession of a thing to a person asserting a claim of right thereto or by complying with a demand that he abstain from any action which he has no duty to take, except that:

(i)The actor is not obliged to retreat from his dwelling, unless he was the initial aggressor; and

(ii)A public officer justified in using force in the performance of his duties or a person justified in using force in his assistance or a person justified in using force in making an arrest or preventing an escape is not obliged to desist from efforts to perform such duty, effect such arrest or prevent such escape because of resistance or threatened resistance by or on behalf of the person against whom such action is directed.

(3)Except as required by paragraphs (1) and (2) of this subsection, a person employing protective force may estimate the necessity of using force when the force is used, without retreating, surrendering possession, doing any other act which he has no legal duty to do or abstaining from any lawful action.

c. (1) Notwithstanding the provisions of N.J.S.2C:3-5, N.J.S.2C:3-9, or this section, the use of force or deadly force upon or toward an intruder who is unlawfully in a dwelling is justifiable when the actor reasonably believes that the force is immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting himself or other persons in the dwelling against the use of unlawful force by the intruder on the present occasion.

(2)A reasonable belief exists when the actor, to protect himself or a third person, was in his own dwelling at the time of the offense or was privileged to be thereon and the encounter between the actor and intruder was sudden and unexpected, compelling the actor to act instantly and:

(a)The actor reasonably believed that the intruder would inflict personal injury upon the actor or others in the dwelling; or

(b)The actor demanded that the intruder disarm, surrender or withdraw, and the intruder refused to do so.

(3)An actor employing protective force may estimate the necessity of using force when the force is used, without retreating, surrendering possession, withdrawing or doing any other act which he has no legal duty to do or abstaining from any lawful action.

L.1978, c.95; amended 1987, c.120, s.1; 1999, c.73.

30 thoughts on “Assault or Self Defense? The Arrest of Former Broncos Player Raises Tough Legal Questions”

  1. Interesting commentariat for a high-end law prof’s blog. Not all links are gold, I guess. 😉

  2. All laws like this are ambiguous. They
    can go either way. In a case like this,
    the determining factor is race, plain and
    simple. Black people are not allowed to
    defend themselves against white people
    9 times out of 10. Let’s look at history
    and see hundreds of examples of this
    dynamic along with its usual outcome.

    1. Why do you choose to ignore the fact that the accused has about 4x the muscle mass, is a foot taller, and is a professional full-time athlete?

  3. In my Police days….I would have charged both with “Public Affray/Fighting” and taken back of them to Jail.

    The way you stop this kind of misconduct is make both parties suffer repercussions.

    The Employee was rightfully dismissed for his conduct….the Passenger let a verbal exchange escalate….after all using a Wheel Chair to tote your Luggage although not illegal….sure shows a lot of arrogance and stupidity. Then to get his butt on his shoulders for being called out for it really undermines any claim to self defense he can try to make. If I were the Airline….he would be permanently banned from flying on my airplanes,

  4. I don’t care what was said the employee had no right to strike him. After the initial blow, the employee squared up aggressively.
    At this point fleeing is not an option and standing still waiting to be struck again is too much to ask. That’s 100% self defense.
    That said, the first punch by Langley was perfect! Great leverage and he pronated as he struck his target. Solid footwork and good hip twist.
    Good on him!

    1. Update! I saw a better vid than the one linked here and it is unclear who threw the first blow. Langley did have his hands down in an apparent conciliatory pose when he was slapped.
      Changing from clear self defense to mutual fight.

  5. airline employees need to be given the benefit of the doubt…so many angry nasty people!

  6. NJ is just nasty! I am sure the employee was PROVOKED BTW. You should be able to incite an employee and expect them to just keep getting attacked and not fight back!
    I am SURE the former National FELON Leaguer is a NASTY PIECE OF WORK!
    Or do you think the NFler just was asking a nice polite question! I travel through newark frequently…EVERYONE there is just NASTY! If I punched every nasty employee…I would never get through.

  7. The Iast great act of defiance. Assuming a jury trial, the prosecutor must factor in what fair-minded citizens are going to want the outcome to be, the letter of the law be damned…. seems obvious the employee got what was coming to him.

  8. Based only on the partial video, the employee slapped the passenger and the passenger had the right of self-defense. I’m thinking the passenger was charged because he went beyond self-defense and pursued the employee, unnecessarily escalating the incident. Plus it took place in an airport, and law enforcement wants to make clear that violence in an airport will not be tolerated. I think they both should have been charged, although the employee was rightly fired for his part in coming out from behind the counter and provoking the passenger.

  9. “The video, which does not show how the altercation began, seems to show the United employee throwing the first punch.”
    *******************************
    mespo727272 ruling: I saw the opposite but I’m still calling it mutual, consensual combat and letting the guys go home scot-free with their employment status (if not their egos) unfazed. Guys handle things differently than gals. No blood, no break, no swoon, no charge. The employee was struck first and seems, from his body language, to be saying “come on.” Passenger accomodated.

    BTW the “victim” looks like a paison; the other guys is African-American. I bet neither wanted criminal charges filed and the real rule to glean here is you gotta keep that left hand/arm up to stop that right cross. .

      1. You don’t think the airport has its own cameras, covering every inch of the facility?

      2. Exactly. I’d expect a retrial if this lawyer was assigned to me.

        2 extra minutes of searching for the full length video would show you that the employee gave him a little smack to the face before the cfl guy started throwing hands.

        This video is out of order, and the claim this idiot makes is based on the second slap in the middle of the video. The altercation was still instigated by the employee, but this incompetence from the “legal expert” is unforgivable.

  10. Most importantly and not discussed is that if you notice Langley appears to be pleading, explaining, negotiating with a (female) member of some Law Enforcement. Look at the close up I present on Twitter. Thisl Law enforcement officer will be an important witness and may even have been equiped with a body cam. We should wait before drawing any consclusion(s) on, or concerning, the escalation and chronology of the event.
    https://twitter.com/DenysPicard/status/1529099497284026369

    1. Addendum, while looking closely, the individual might be filming with her phone, and pulling a luggage telescopic handle (she couldjust be another passenger)…its hard to say. I thought at first analysis she had a “stop” gesture towards the employee and was pulling, or getting ready to pull, a Baton. Why is Langley negotiating or pleading with her?

  11. Lawyers make things more complicated than they need to be.

    The employee is the aggressor. Langley had clearly retreated when the UA employee threw a sucker punch. At that moment, to the victor goes the spoils.

    Sheriff Andy Griffith would have put them both in lockup overnight and Aunt Bea would have brought over eggs, pancakes, and ham, for breakfast and both sent on their way.

    In my younger form, I often (always?) closed the distance between my self and a potential agrassor. I am above average in size and carry myself even larger. If the guy would not back down,I explained I refuse to fight by the rules, and the only way for him to walk away, was when I was unconscious. I have never thrown a punch.
    I assume the UA employee was getting lippy with Langley, Langely closed the distance,and the employee pushed him back and then, that’s when the video starts.

    Its a shame law enforcement got involved.

  12. Often ignored is the fact that arrest, negative publicity, and the threat of prosecution is already punishment.

    There is a tremendous cost: financial, emotional, reputational that comes with any arrest.

    And that is just the start of the problems.

  13. To me… clear cut.. employee aggressively approached passenger who initially backed up. BOTH parties squared off and the employee assaulted passenger. Passenger had the right to kick that stupid employees ass!

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