PA Superior Court: Defendant Entitled to New Trial Where Instructions Permitted Jury to Find Aggravated Assault on Officer Based on Mens Rea of Recklessness

The Difference Between Aggravated Assault and Simple Assault on Law Enforcement

There is a common misconception in Pennsylvania courts that a Simple Assault on a police officer, medical professional, or other protected class who is acting in the course of their official duties automatically becomes a felony two Aggravated Assault due to the Aggravated Assault on law enforcement statute. In normal circumstances, Aggravated Assault as a first-degree felony requires that the defendant cause or attempt to cause serious bodily injury to the complainant. Aggravated Assault may also be a second degree felony either when the defendant causes or attempts to cause bodily injury with a deadly weapon or when the defendant causes or attempts to cause bodily injury to a member of a protected class. Protected classes under the F2 Aggravated Assault statute include most forms of law enforcement officers, paramedics, nurses, SEPTA employees, prosecutors, public defenders, judges, and other government officials who are acting in the course of their official duties. Thus, punching a police officer is often going to be an F2 Aggravated Assault instead of a Simple Assault. This assumes that the officer was on duty at the time of the punch. 

Demetra Mehta, Esq. - Philadelphia Criminal Lawyer

Demetra Mehta, Esq. - Philadelphia Criminal Lawyer

In the case of an obvious punch or a kick to an officer, a criminal defendant may be properly charged with Aggravated Assault as a felony of the second degree. However, where the intent to cause bodily injury is less clear – such as in the case of a defendant who is resisting, fleeing, flailing, and just otherwise being difficult and ends up elbowing or bumping into an officer, the defendant’s actions may not constitute an Aggravated Assault. This is because the F2 Aggravated Assault on law enforcement statute requires that the defendant act either knowingly or intentionally to cause or attempt to cause bodily injury. The Aggravated Assault statute is more limited than the Simple Assault statute because the Simple Assault statute can be violated when the defendant acts recklessly. This means that it could be Simple Assault to elbow a police officer while flailing about and resisting arrest instead of a felony Aggravated Assault. Of course, we still do not recommend that you resist arrest or do anything that could be construed as an assault on an officer. 

Commonwealth v. Domek

Zak T. Goldstein, Esq. - Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer

Zak T. Goldstein, Esq. - Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer

In the recent case of Commonwealth v. Domek, the Pennsylvania Superior Court granted a new trial to the defendant, finding that the trial court had improperly dismissed his Post-Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”) Petition. Domek’s PCRA Petition alleged that his trial attorney had been ineffective in failing to object when the trial court instructed the jury that Domek could be convicted of F2 Aggravated Assault on law enforcement if the jury found that he recklessly caused bodily injury.

In Domek, police transported the defendant to the Allegheny County jail. When the defendant arrived, he refused to cooperate with a search of his mouth and began to yell profanity at the correctional officers. Officers repeatedly warned him that they would use force to open his mouth, and he continued resisting. When one of the officers reached towards his mouth, the defendant smacked her hand away. At that point, the officers began struggling with the defendant. One of them punched him, and they took him to the ground. Once on the ground, he refused to put his hands behind his back, and the officers eventually tazed him. Officers testified at trial that the defendant had tried to push and punch the officers. Additionally, one of the officers suffered a shoulder injury which required surgery and led to missing ten months of work.

F2 Aggravated Assault Requires Knowing or Intentional Conduct

A jury convicted the defendant of F2 Aggravated Assault, and the defendant appealed. The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the conviction, and the defendant did not appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Instead, within one year of the conviction becoming final, he filed a Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition alleging that trial counsel had been ineffective for failing to object to the erroneous jury instruction. Generally, a PCRA allows a defendant who has been convicted and is still serving a sentence to seek a new trial or new sentencing where the defendant can show that his or her lawyer was ineffective in the representation at trial or on appeal and that the defendant suffered prejudice as a result.

In this case, the trial court dismissed the PCRA as meritless. However, the defendant appealed the dismissal of the PCRA to the Superior Court. The Superior Court reversed, finding that the jury instructions were erroneous in that they specifically permitted the jury to find that if the defendant had caused the injury recklessly, the jury could convict him of Aggravated Assault instead of Simply Assault. Because Aggravated Assault requires a defendant to have acted knowingly or intentionally, this instruction was not correct.

The trial court had agreed that the instruction contained an error, but the court argued that the evidence was overwhelming that the defendant committed an Aggravated Assault. Therefore, the trial court adopted the prosecution’s position and dismissed the PCRA. The Superior Court disagreed. It found that “the inclusion of an erroneous mens rea reducing the level of culpability required to find Appellant guilty of aggravated assault was a critical mistake that ‘could have reasonably had an adverse impact on the outcome of the proceedings.’” Given that the jury acquitted the defendant of an offense that required the knowing or intentional causation of injury, the Court found that it was very possible the jury convicted based on the recklessness jury instruction. Further, the injured officer testified at trial that she suffered the injury when the defendant fell backwards onto her, which is potentially consistent with recklessness. Therefore, because the issue raised a question of law, the Court reversed the conviction for F2 Aggravated Assault and remanded the case for trial.  

Domek illustrates the difference between Simple Assault and Aggravated Assault, and it also provides an example of the type of claim that can be raised in a Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition. A PCRA Petition alleging ineffectiveness of counsel allows the defendant to seek relief in the form of a new trial where the defendant's lawyer was ineffective. Had the defendant's trial lawyer recognized the differences between the statutes and made a timely objection, the trial court likely would have realized that the instruction was incorrect and instructed the jury properly. In that case, the jury may very well have acquitted the defendant of felony Aggravated Assault. Therefore, the PCRA Petition was the proper place to raise this type of claim. 

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers for Assault Charges and PCRA Petition

Goldstein Mehta LLC Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorneys

Goldstein Mehta LLC Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorneys

If you are facing criminal charges or are interested in appealing a conviction, we can help. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully resolved countless cases at trial and on appeal. We offer a 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to any potential client, so call 267-225-2545 to discuss your case with an experienced and understanding criminal defense attorney today.