Tempers flare. Threats get made. A punch gets thrown. Someone screams. And suddenly the police are on the scene. The charge could be simple assault. Maybe.
There is nothing simple about simple assault under New Jersey law.
For one thing, the victim doesn't even have to be injured. For another thing, the charge may depend on the victim's job. Or, it might turn on what the assailant said or whether he had a weapon. Or, it might turn on the assailant's intentions or even where he was when the assault occurred.
The New Jersey assault statute (N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1a) sets forth six different ways a person can be found guilty of simple assault. These circumstances are:
- Attempting to cause bodily injury to another
- Purposely causing bodily injury to another
- Knowingly causing bodily injury to another
- Recklessly causing bodily injury to another; or
- Negligently causing bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon; or
- Attempting by physical menace to put another in fear of imminent serious bodily injury.
An example will make this clearer. Swinging at someone with a baseball bat and missing because the victim ducks could fit the definition of simple assault on the theory that the defendant was trying to hurt the victim (#1) or scare him (#6), even though the victim wasn't injured at all.
But what if the defendant was demonstrating his swing and didn't care if other people were too close? What if he hurt someone under those circumstances? Is it reckless or negligent behavior under #4 or #5? Is the bat a deadly weapon under #5? An attorney will know how to research the law that is needed to defend such a case.
What exactly is the definition of the "bodily injury" that is required in the assault statute? New Jersey defines it as physical pain, illness or any impairment of physical condition. (N.J.S.A. 2C:11-1a) That definition is not as obvious as it might seem. Suppose a person is gesturing wildly during a heated exchange and brushes someone's chin. Is that enough pain for him to be convicted of simple assault? The answer to that question is no, it isn't. State v. Cabana, 315 N.J. Super. 84 (Law Div. 1997), aff'd 318 N.J. Super. 259 (App. Div. 1999). But what if the defendant places the victim in a head lock for 20 or 30 seconds? In that case, the pain is deemed sufficient for a conviction. State v. Stull, 403 N.J. Super. 501 (App. Div. 2008).
Most of the time, simple assault cases are handled in municipal court. That doesn't mean that it isn't important to be represented by counsel. A person can be sent to jail for six months if he or she is convicted of simple assault.
The charges can be a whole lot more serious depending on the victim.
If the assault is on any of the following people, the simple assault charge can sometimes be graded as the much more serious charge of aggravated assault:
- Law enforcement officers
- Paid or volunteer firemen
- Emergency medical technicians
- Employees of a school, including school board members, school administrators, teachers and school bus drivers
- Division of Youth and Family Services employees
- Bus drivers
- Department of Corrections employees, county corrections officers, juvenile corrections officers, State juvenile facility employees, juvenile detention staff members, juvenile detention officers, probation officers or any sheriff, undersheriff, or sheriff's officers
- Utility company employees
If the assault is against one of these victims, the case could be indicted and tried at the County level as a felony. Some of the critical questions at trial will be (1) whether the victim could be clearly identified as acting in the course of his duties when he was assaulted or (2) whether he was attacked because of who he was. Drawing out the evidence to answer these questions takes legal skill and could mean the difference between a simple assault conviction and an aggravated assault conviction that could send the actor to state prison. A skilled attorney will be looking at the evidence from the outset, ready to convince the prosecutor that the case is more appropriately handled as a simple assault in municipal court.
Sometimes the grading of an assault even depends on where it took place and who was there to see it happen. If, for example, a parent becomes angry at a school basketball game and punches the referee or the coach or even another spectator in the presence of children under 16, the parent could be charged with aggravated assault.
If the injury is more serious, then so is the charge.
When a victim is more seriously injured, the police are likely to charge aggravated assault. In such cases, the assistance of a skilled criminal defense lawyer is crucial. For example, what if the defendant punches the victim in the face and breaks his nose. Is that considered bodily injury (and thus a simple assault) or is it serious or significant bodily injury (and thus an aggravated assault)? The answer is likely bodily injury, but you would need a lawyer to find the right case: State v. Kane, 335 N.J. Super. 391 (App. Div. 2000).
An added complication is domestic violence. Many simple assaults take place between individuals who are married or have a child together. The victim may seek a restraining order, or may already have one. The attorney has to be ready to coordinate between the criminal and civil aspects of the cases. Was there a temporary restraining order in place when the assault occurred? If so, the simple assault is no longer so simple-the defendant may be facing a contempt of court charge in the Superior Court. In such cases, the attorney will work to see if the charge could be downgraded-perhaps to harassment and disorderly persons contempt-so that it can be heard in municipal court.
As you can see, the defendant's fate depends on having an attorney prepared with the cases and statutes that address the incredible variety and complexity of the not-so-simple charge of simple assault.
As with any serious charge, never go to court alone. Simple assault charges are not only devastating personally, they can have real consequences for a person's livelihood and even their freedom. If you have been charged with simple assault, the experienced simple assault defense attorneys at Brickfield & Donahue would welcome your inquiries. We have helped many people through the procedure and if you contact us immediately, an experienced simple assault defense lawyer from our office will do their best to ensure that your case is handled properly and promptly. To contact a criminal defense attorney at Brickfield & Donahue, call (201) 488-7707 or send us an email.