In New Jersey, an assault occurs when a person injures or attempts to injure another person without legal justification. Assault can be charged as either a simple assault or an aggravated assault. The different levels of assault depend on several factors, including the seriousness of a victim’s injury, whether the defendant used a weapon or object to cause an injury, and (in some cases) whether a victim is provided special protection by New Jersey law. This article deals solely with aggravated assault.
(N.J.S.A § 2C:12-1(b)).
To read about simple assault, see Simple Assault in New Jersey.
What is Aggravated Assault?
New Jersey law defines 11 scenarios (listed below) that constitute aggravated assault. Many of the 11 scenarios center upon a defendant attempting to cause or actually causing some level of “bodily injury.” In addition, the injury must have been caused either purposely, knowingly, or recklessly. Also, some of the scenarios focus on an injury caused when a defendant acted under “circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life .” Finally, many of them involve use of a deadly weapon. Because these factors underlie so many of the aggravated assault scenarios, the factors are explained below, before turning to the 11 scenarios.
Many of the aggravated assault scenarios involve an attempt to cause or the actual infliction of an unjustified injury. The level of injury ranges from a simple “bodily injury” to a more severe “significant bodily injury” up to a “serious bodily injury.” A “bodily injury” occurs when a victim suffers at least some physical – not mental – injury or pain. That is because New Jersey law defines “bodily injury” as “physical pain, illness or any impairment of physical condition.” A “significant bodily injury” is a “temporary loss of the function of any bodily member or organ or temporary loss of any one of the five senses.” In contrast, a “serious bodily injury” creates a substantial risk of death, or long-term disfigurement or loss or impairment of an organ.
(N.J.S.A. § 2C:11-1(a)¸(b), (d)).
A person causes an injury purposely when the person wanted the injury to occur.
A person causes an injury knowingly when the person is aware that his actions will almost certainly cause injury.
A person acts recklessly when he “consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that” his actions will cause an injury (N.J.S.A. § 2C:2-2(b)(3)). That means that a person is reckless when he is aware that his actions will likely cause the injury, but he just doesn’t care.
Acting “under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life”
This long legalistic phrase focuses not on a defendant’s state of mind but instead upon on the circumstances under which the defendant acted. So, instead of considering whether a defendant acted knowingly, purposely, or recklessly, the extreme indifference standard asks whether a defendant’s conduct resulted in a probability as opposed to a mere possibility of injury. By way of example, driving a car into a crowd of people would exhibit extreme indifference.
A “deadly weapon” includes not only traditional weapons like firearms, but also any object or substance that, while not usually a weapon, can nonetheless be used in a way that is readily able to cause death or serious bodily injury. For example, using a heavy lamp to hit someone would turn it into a deadly weapon.
The 11 ways to commit aggravated assault
In New Jersey, it is aggravated assault to:
1. attempt to cause a serious bodily injury or actually cause such an injury, purposely or knowingly or recklessly, under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life.
2. either attempt to cause or purposely or knowingly cause a bodily injury by using a deadly weapon.
3. recklessly cause bodily injury with a deadly weapon.
4. knowingly, under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life, point a firearm at or in the direction of another person. Note, that it does not matter whether the defendant believed the firearm was unloaded – as long as the defendant pointed the firearm, the crime is committed.
5. cause bodily injury while committing one of two other crimes. The other crimes are fleeing or attempting to elude a law enforcement officer (which is a violation of N.J.S.2C:29-2(b)), or operating a motor vehicle in violation of N.J.S.2C:20-10(c). Note that as long as the injury occurred while the defendant committed either of the two relevant crimes (fleeing or unlawful operation of a motor vehicle), it is aggravated assault even if the defendant did not intend to cause an injury.
6. either attempt to cause significant bodily injury or actually cause such injury, purposely or knowingly or recklessly, under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life.
7. cause bodily injury to any emergency services personnel who are either responding to or helping put out a fire that occurred because a defendant knowingly or purposely started a fire or caused an explosion. As long as the injury occurred because the defendant started a fire or caused an explosion, it is aggravated assault even if the defendant did not intend for any emergency services personnel to be injured.
8. knowingly, under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life, point or display a firearm at or in the direction of a law enforcement officer.
9. knowingly point, display or use an imitation firearm at or in the direction of a law enforcement officer for the purpose of intimidating, threatening, or attempting to put the officer in fear of bodily injury or for any other unlawful purpose.
10. use or activate a laser sighting system or device (or an object that a reasonable person would believe is a laser sight) against a law enforcement officer acting in the performance of his duties while in uniform or exhibiting evidence of his authority. A “laser sighting system or device” is a system or device that is “integrated with or affixed to a firearm and emits a laser light beam that is used to assist in the sight alignment or aiming of the firearm.”
11. commit simple assault against certain persons given special protection by New Jersey law due to their occupations. Those persons are:
- law enforcement officers who are assaulted either while acting in the line of duty or because of their status as law enforcement officers
- paid or volunteer firemen acting in the line of duty
- persons engaged in emergency first-aid or medical services, acting in the line of duty
- school board members, school administrators, teachers, school bus drivers, or other employees of a public or nonpublic school or school board who are assaulted either while acting in the line of duty or because of their occupational status
- employees of the Division of Youth and Family Services who are assaulted either while acting in the line of duty or because they are Division employees
- justices of the Supreme Court, judges of the Superior Court, judges of the Tax Court or municipal judges who are assaulted either while engaged in the performance of judicial duties or because they are members of the judiciary
- operators of a motorbus or the operator’s supervisor or any employee of a rail passenger service who are assaulted either while acting in the line of duty or because of their occupational status
- 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 sheriffs, undersheriffs, or sheriff's officers acting in the performance of their duties
- employees of a utility company or a cable television company (including any person employed under contract) engaged in the performance of their duties. Put simply, this section protects utility workers who may be trying to disconnect services.
- health care workers employed by a licensed health care facility to provide direct patient care, or any health care professionals licensed or otherwise authorized to practice a health care profession who are engaged in the performance of their duties, and
- direct care workers at a state or county psychiatric hospital or state developmental center or veterans’ memorial home, engaged in the performance of their duties. Aggravated assault will not be charged if the attack is committed by a patient or resident at the facility who is classified by the facility as having a mental illness or developmental disability.
The penalties for aggravated assault depend upon which type of aggravated assaulted a defendant committed. That is because the different types of aggravated assault are classified as different levels of crimes with varying penalty levels. Aggravated assault ranges from a lower level crime of the fourth degree up through a crime of the third degree to a higher level crime of the second degree. A defendant convicted of aggravated assault can be sentenced to a prison term or probation (or both), as well as fined and ordered to make restitution.
The length of a prison term, as well as the amount of a fine, depends upon the level of the aggravated assault conviction. A prison term in New Jersey is for a “specific term.” That means that a judge has a range from within which to pick a term (for example, a defendant convicted of a third degree crime must receive a sentence of at least three years but no longer than five years. A judge could impose a three year sentence, or a five year sentence, or any amount of time within those limits). Fines and restitution also have maximum limits set by the Legislature, but a judge can order a higher fine not to exceed double the amount of loss suffered by a victim.
(N.J.S.A. § 2C:43-3).
Second degree crime
A defendant convicted of a second degree crime can be sentenced to a prison term of anywhere between five years to ten years. In addition, the defendant can be fined up to $150,000.
Of the 11 different ways to commit aggravated assault discussed earlier, aggravated assault is a second degree crime when committed either in the first or fifth way.
Third degree crime
Conviction of a third degree crime carries a potential prison sentence of at least three years up to five years, and a fine that could be up to $15,000.
Aggravated assault is a third degree crime when committed in the second, sixth, eighth, ninth, or tenth way detailed above. It is also a third degree crime when committed in the seventh way but only if a victim suffers a simple bodily injury - if the victim suffers a serious or significant bodily injury, then it is a crime of the second degree.
Fourth degree crime
The prison term for a fourth degree conviction cannot exceed 18 months, and a fine cannot be more than $1,000.
Aggravated assault is a fourth degree crime when committed in the third or fourth way discussed above. It is also a fourth degree crime when committed in the eleventh way unless a victim suffered bodily injury, in which case it is a crime of the third degree.
Consult With a Lawyer
Being charged with aggravated assault is a serious matter. You would be well advised to consult with an attorney having knowledge of the assault laws and penalties applicable in your particular case. A knowledgeable criminal defense attorney may be able to convince a prosecutor or jury that a defendant either did not have the state of mind necessary to cause an injury or at least did not cause a serious enough injury to merit being charged with aggravated assault. Also, because punishment varies depending on the facts underlying an aggravated assault, an experienced attorney may be able to paint a picture of the crime that results in lesser punishment.