In State v. A.L.A., 251 N.J. 580, 582 (2022), the New Jersey Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether “a jury could have understood that the affirmative defense of reasonable corporal punishment applied to both a child endangerment charge and a simple assault charge where the reasonable corporal punishment instruction was provided only in the instructions for the child endangerment offense.”

In that case, the defendant A.L.A. was the legal guardian of her four grandchildren, who ranged in age from three to seventeen years old.  Id. at 582.  At one point, the oldest grandchild, K.A., reported to authorities that the defendant had physically abused her and the other three children.  Ibid.  The Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP) opened an investigation and ultimately initiated an emergency removal of the children from the defendant’s home based on an audio recording of the defendant allegedly hitting her three-year-old grandchild A.A. with a belt multiple times, and the defendant’s seeming admission to the abuse.  Ibid.   According to K.A., prior to the recording, the defendant had instructed A.A. to lie on the bed, but instead A.A. disobeyed and got off the bed to play with some toys on the floor, and as a result, the defendant hit A.A. with the belt.  Id. at 585.  The children were subsequently taken to the hospital pursuant to DCPP’s required post-removal procedures, but medical examinations of the children did not reveal any injuries.  Id. at 585.

The defendant was subsequently tried on several counts of endangering the welfare a child in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(2).  Id. at 586.  At the charge conference, the parties agreed that the court would instruct the jury on second-degree endangering the welfare of a child, and what the parties termed a lesser included disorderly persons offense of simple assault.  Ibid.

In charging the jury on the endangering the welfare of a child charge, the trial judge instructed the jury that “[t]he law does not prohibit the use of corporal punishment. The statute prohibits the infliction of excessive corporal punishment. The general proposition is that a parent may inflict moderate correction such as is reasonable under the circumstances of a case.”  Id. at 588.  See N.J.S.A. 2C:3-8 (Use of force by persons with special responsibility for care, discipline or safety of others); Dep’t of Children and Families, Div. of Youth and Family Servs. v. K.A., 413 N.J. Super. 504, 510 (2010) (endorsing language used by trial judge for jury instructions for child endangerment).

However, over defense counsel’s objection, the judge did not include the reasonable corporal punishment exception in the instruction for the simple assault charge.  Ibid.   The jury subsequently returned a verdict acquitting the defendant of all child endangerment charges but convicting her of one count of simple assault with respect to A.A. only.  Id. at 589.

The Appellate Division affirmed the defendant’s conviction in an unpublished split decision.  Ibid.  The defendant appealed as of right to the New Jersey Supreme Court based on the dissent in the Appellate Division.  Id. at 590.

The Supreme Court found that the trial judge erred in omitting the requested jury instruction.  Id. at 597.  The Court explained that whether that omission was harmless, “turns on whether the jury would have understood from the entirety of the jury charge that ‘reasonable corporal punishment’ was an exception to criminal liability under both the child endangerment and simple assault charges.”  Ibid.  The Court found “there is a real possibility that the erroneous instruction ‘led to an unjust result’ — that is, there is a possibility ‘sufficient to raise a reasonable doubt as to whether [the instruction] led the jury to a verdict it otherwise might not have reached.’”  Ibid.  (quoting State v. Baum, 224 N.J. 147, 159 (2016)).   The Court explained that:

Although we cannot speculate as to the jury’s determinations during deliberations, the jury verdict was inconsistent. The jury acquitted defendant of the very same conduct under the child endangerment statute that it found defendant guilty of under the simple assault statute.  The difference is that defendant had the benefit of the K.A. reasonable corporal punishment instruction for the child endangerment charge but not for simple assault.  Had the same instruction been explicitly given to the jury for the simple assault charge, there is a real possibility that the jury could have reached a different result on that charge.

As defense counsel explained in requesting the reasonable corporal punishment charge, if a parent or guardian is charged with simple assault and the jury is not instructed that reasonable corporal punishment is not prohibited, a guilty verdict will almost always result because bodily injury under simple assault can be found if the victim suffered the sensation of physical pain.  If the jury is not instructed as to the law regarding reasonable corporal punishment in relation to a simple assault charge, then the jury could never reach a verdict other than guilty so long as there is sufficient evidence that the child experienced the sensation of physical pain.

[Id. at 597-598.]

The Supreme Court instructed that:

Going forward, if simple assault is charged along with child endangerment in the context of a parent or guardian inflicting corporal punishment, the trial court must instruct the jury as to the law regarding each offense.  Specifically, the trial court must instruct the jury that the law does not prohibit the use of corporal punishment and a parent may inflict moderate correction as is reasonable under the circumstances of the case not only as to the endangerment charges but also as to the simple assault charges.  The jury must also be instructed that excessive corporal punishment, however, is prohibited as to both charges.  We do not anticipate that simple assault will often be charged in cases such as the present matter, but if it is, the above-noted instructions must be provided.

[Id. at 599.]

As a result, the Court reversed the judgment of the Appellate Division, vacated the defendant’s conviction, and remanded the matter consistent with its opinion.  Ibid.

This case aptly illustrates the need for defense counsel to be familiar with all aspects of criminal law, including the complicated jury charges applicable to specific offenses.  If you are facing criminal charges you should immediately reach out to our team of experienced former prosecutors to schedule a free case review with one of our expert criminal defense attorneys. A complete understanding of criminal law by your attorney is crucial to your defense. Your rights and freedoms are in jeopardy, and you owe it to yourself to act. We are available to provide immediate assistance and further counsel on your criminal case at (862) 315-7929.