In State v. A.L.A.,(A-3-21/085500)(Decided August 18, 2022), the New Jersey Supreme Court held that in child endangerment cases, as well as simple assault cases, courts must instruct juries that reasonable corporal punishment is legal. Because the jury in the case could not have understood that the reasonable corporal punishment language in the child endangerment charge also applied to the simple assault charge, the court vacated the defendant’s conviction.
Facts of State v. A.L.A.
Defendant A.L.A. was the legal guardian of her four grandchildren, who ranged in age from three to seventeen years old. In August 2016, the oldest grandchild reported that defendant physically abused them. Following an investigation, the Division of Child Protection & Permanency determined that the children should be removed from defendant’s home.
Defendant was tried for multiple counts of endangering the welfare of a child. The parties agreed that the court would instruct the jury on second-degree endangering, and what the parties termed a lesser included disorderly persons offense of simple assault. When the court asked counsel for comments on the proposed jury instructions, defense counsel told the judge, “if you were to read that without a caveat, every spanking is a simple assault.” Defense counsel argued “that corporal punishment is recognized by the law as a valid means of disciplining a child. So, there are certain parts of corporal punishment that would not — would not be a simple assault because otherwise it’s just going to be an automatic simple assault on all three charges.”
The parties agreed that where there is a child endangering charge under N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a), the following charge (referred to by the New Jersey Supreme Court as “the K.A. language”) should be used: “The 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 the case.” (quoting DYFS v. K.A., 413 N.J. Super. 504, 510 (App. Div. 2010)). The trial judge adopted the K.A. language in instructing the jury on the child endangerment count but not the simple assault charge.
After the trial judge instructed the jury, defense counsel sought an instruction for the simple assault charge noting the reasonable corporal punishment exception. The court declined to change the charge, and the jury acquitted defendant of all child endangerment charges but convicted her of one count of simple assault with respect to only one of the children. A majority of the Appellate Division affirmed.
NJ Supreme Court Decision in State v. A.L.A.
The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, vacated the conviction, and remanded the case for further proceedings. “We find that the jury could not have understood that the K.A. language in the child endangerment charge also applied to the simple assault charge. We agree with the dissent that omitting the instruction during the simple assault charge was clearly capable of producing an unjust result; indeed, in finding defendant guilty of simple assault, the jury convicted defendant of the same conduct it acquitted her of in the child endangerment charge, as to which it had been instructed on reasonable corporal punishment,” the court wrote. “We therefore hold that the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury, in the context of the simple assault charge in this case, that reasonable corporal punishment is not prohibited. We find that the error in jury instructions could have led the jury to an unjust result.”
The New Jersey Supreme Court first found that the defendant was entitled to an affirmative defense instruction, separate and apart from the child endangerment charge, that reasonable corporal punishment is not a crime and does not constitute simple assault. In support, it cited N.J.S.A. 2C:3-8, which provides in part that force used upon “another is justifiable . . . where the actor has been vested or entrusted with special responsibility for the care, supervision, discipline or safety of another or of others and the force is used for the purpose of and…to the extent necessary to further that responsibility.”
The New Jersey Supreme Court next found the erroneous jury instruction could have led to an unjust result. “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 … 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,” the court wrote.
Finally, the New Jersey Supreme Court emphasized that it was not endorsing the notion that simple assault is a lesser included offense to child endangerment and did not foresee that simple assault will often be charged in similar cases. However, the court advised 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.