On August 18, 2022, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the Monmouth County case of State v. A.L.A. The principal issue under N.J.S.A. 2C:3-8 concerned the interplay between the jury instructions on Use of Force with the assault and child endangerment charges.
My law school classmate, Justice Pierre-Louis, wrote for the unanimous Court in relevant part:
In this case, whether the error in omitting the requested jury instruction was harmless, see State v. Baum (2016), 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. We find 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.”
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.
A possible cause of the omitted instruction is that simple assault is a disorderly persons offense. But for the related indictable charges, the simple assault charge would have been handled in municipal court. There is no right to a jury trial in municipal court. Therefore, there is a relative absence of model jury instructions for disorderly persons offenses.