When Can You Be Charged with Simple Assault Under N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1?

Under N.J.S.A. § 2C:12-1, there are three reasons a person can be charged with simple assault in New Jersey: (1) deliberately or recklessly inflicting injury, or attempting to inflict injury; (2) negligently (carelessly) inflicting injury while using a weapon; and (3) trying to place another person in fear for their immediate safety.  In order for the defendant to be convicted of this offense, the prosecutor must be able to prove that certain facts and circumstances were true.

If you or one of your loved ones has been charged with assault in New Jersey, you face serious criminal penalties.  Don’t go up against the prosecutor without knowledgeable legal support on your side.  Our Atlantic City assault lawyers are here to aggressively protect your rights and fight the allegations against you.  At the Law Offices of John J. Zarych, our criminal defense attorneys have over 45 years of experience defending clients charged with simple assault in Atlantic County, Cape May County, and the surrounding area.

To set up a free legal consultation, call our law offices at (609) 616-4956.  We will keep your information absolutely confidential.

What Must a Jury Believe to Convict for Simple Assault Charges in New Jersey?

First, it’s important to emphasize that simple assault and aggravated assault are completely separate criminal charges.  This information focuses on simple assault only.

In a criminal trial, the jury is generally comprised of 12 jurors under New Jersey Court Rule 1:8-2(a), though smaller juries may be permitted, subject to court approval, in cases for which capital punishment (the death penalty) is not a sentencing option.

Under Court Rule 1:8-9, the verdict must be unanimous.  If the jury is unable to return a unanimous verdict, it is called a “hung jury.”  This situation can result in two outcomes:

  1. The jury may continue with deliberations until a unanimous verdict is reached.
  2. The jury may be discharged (dismissed) altogether, and the case may be retried.

Jurors do not have absolute discretion over their own decision-making process.  On the contrary, they must follow explicit instructions from the court.

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Assault with Bodily Injury to the Victim, or Attempts to Injure

Grounds for assault charges under N.J.S.A. § 2C:12-1(1) include:

  • “Purposely, knowingly or recklessly caus[ing] bodily injury to another.”
  • Attempting to do so.

In order for a jury to convict a defendant of simple assault with bodily injury in New Jersey, the prosecutor must be able to prove both of the following facts:

  1. The defendant caused physical injury (“bodily injury”) to the victim. For legal purposes, New Jersey defines bodily injury to mean “physical pain, illness or any impairment of the physical condition” under N.J.S.A. § 2C:11-1(a).
  2. The defendant acted recklessly or intentionally. This would exclude, for instance, accidentally knocking someone with your elbow in a crowded space.  A defendant is considered to have acted intentionally when their goal was to injure.  A defendant is “reckless” when they disregard a major, unjustifiable risk.

In cases involving attempted infliction of injury, the jury must find that the defendant either:

  • Acted in such a way that would be grounds for charging simple assault from a reasonable person’s point of view (i.e. intentionally trying to injure another person).
  • Did something with the aim of inflicting injury. More specifically, this means something “designed to cause bodily injury without [the defendant] having to take any further action [in order to cause injury].”
  • Took any preparatory steps toward committing assault.
    • In this scenario, such step(s) must be “strongly” indicative of the defendant’s intent to cause injury. The prosecutor must be able to show that the defendant “had a firmness of criminal purpose in light of the step(s) he/she had already taken.”

If the prosecutor is able to establish these elements beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury must convict the defendant.  Likewise, the jury must acquit (find the defendant not guilty) if any of these elements cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  This holds true of all simple assault allegations, including those involving physical menace or the negligent infliction of injury with a deadly weapon.

Negligently Causing Injury with a Deadly Weapon

Causing or attempting to cause bodily injury is not the only reason for which a person can be charged with simple assault in New Jersey.  N.J.S.A. § 2C:12-1(2) also provides grounds for charges when a person allegedly “negligently causes bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon.”  In order to convict a defendant on this basis, the jury must find that:

  1. The defendant caused bodily injury.
  2. The defendant used a deadly weapon.
  3. The defendant acted with negligence.

To reiterate, bodily injury describes “physical pain, illness, or any impairment of the physical condition of another.”

The term “deadly weapon” means more than just guns and knives.  N.J.S.A. § 2C:11-1(c) defines a “deadly weapon” as “any firearm or other weapon, device… material or substance… [which] is known to be capable of producing death or serious bodily injury.” (Serious bodily injury, which exceeds bodily injury, is defined as an injury that “creates a substantial risk of death or which causes serious, permanent disfigurement, or [long-term] loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ.”)

Realistic fake weapons can also be deemed deadly weapons (“[a device] which in the manner it is fashioned would lead the victim reasonably to believe it to be capable of producing death or serious bodily injury”).

“Negligence,” which often arises in civil (non-criminal) cases, means the defendant failed to take the normal, reasonable steps that were necessary to avoid a preventable and foreseeable accident that could result in death or injury.  Stated more simply, negligence means failing to do something one should have done, thus falling short of the “standard of care” expected under the circumstances.  A defendant is negligent when they ought to be “aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk,” yet act carelessly.

Physical Menace

Using “physical menace” against another person is the third and final reason for which a person can be charged with committing simple assault in the state of New Jersey.  N.J.S.A. § 2C:12-1(3) specifies as grounds for charges “attempts by physical menace to put another [person] in fear of imminent serious bodily injury.”

In order to convict a defendant on these grounds, the jury must find the defendant:

  1. Deliberately, purposely attempted to evoke “imminent” fear of serious bodily injury in another person.
  2. Did so by way of “physical menace.”

Again, “serious bodily injury” is greater than bodily injury and carries its own, distinct definition: injury creating a major risk of death, major and permanent disfigurement, the loss of a body part or function, or the long-term impairment of a body part of function.

“Imminent” is defined to mean “likely to happen without delay” (i.e. right away, not in the distant future).

Importantly for defendants, verbal threats alone do not meet New Jersey’s definition of “physical menace.”  The prosecutor must prove the defendant committed one or more “physically threatening acts” in order to establish the element of physical menace.

Finally, in addition to finding that the defendant used physical menace to evoke fear of imminent and serious bodily injury, the jury must also find that the defendant acted intentionally.  The jury instructions make a few important notes on this point:

  • Obviously, intent is not visible. Therefore, the jury must make reasonable, educated inferences about the defendant’s intent based on his or her actions and behavior.
  • The prosecutor need not produce a witness in order to prove the defendant acted intentionally. The jury has the power to determine whether the defendant acted intentionally by making inferences based not only on the alleged attack itself, but also the surrounding circumstances.

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Fines and Jail Sentences for DP Offenses: What Are the Criminal Penalties if I am Convicted?

If the jury unanimously finds that you have committed all elements of the offense with which you have been charged, you must be convicted and sentenced.  Sentencing is determined by the judge, who refers to New Jersey’s sentencing guidelines while taking other factors into consideration, such as:

  • Aggravating factors (which can enhance penalties) and mitigating factors (which can lessen penalties).
  • Your criminal history.
  • Whether probation or a form of alternative sentencing, such as the conditional dismissal program, would be more appropriate than incarceration taking all circumstances into account.

The penalties for an offense depend on how it is classified, or graded.  In New Jersey, an “indictable” offense is equivalent to a felony, while a “disorderly persons” or “DP” offense is equivalent to a misdemeanor.  Some DP offenses are further classified as petty DP offenses, which carry lighter penalties than DP offenses.  DP offenses and indictable crimes will both result in a criminal record.

Under N.J.S.A. § 2C:12-1, simple assault is normally charged as a disorderly persons offense, unless the parties willingly consented to enter the fight, in which case it is charged as a petty disorderly persons offense.  Penalties for DP and petty DP offenses in New Jersey can include:

  • Disorderly Persons Offense
    • Fine — Up to $1,000
    • Jail Time — Up to 6 months
  • Petty Disorderly Persons Offense
    • Fine — Up to $500
    • Jail Time — Up to 30 days

If you or one of your family members has been charged with simple assault in New Jersey, you could be facing stiff penalties, including the loss of your freedom.  If convicted, you will also be burdened with a criminal record, which can interfere with employment, loans, and other parts of your life.

If You Were Charged With Assault, Contact An Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney To Handle Your Case

When the consequences are this serious, you should strongly consider seeking help from a highly experienced criminal attorney with extensive knowledge of assault charges in New Jersey.  To set up a free, completely confidential legal consultation regarding the charges, call the Law Offices of John J. Zarych at (609) 616-4956.  We handle cases throughout Atlantic County and Cape May County.  Se habla español.