After an incident in an Atlantic County courtroom prompted safety concerns for attorneys representing clients charged with violent behavior, Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo and John Armato (both D-Atlantic) have introduced legislation (A-5589) to upgrade charges of simple assault to aggravated assault when committed against an attorney while they are performing court duties or because of their status as a counsel.
Last month, an Atlantic County public defender was attacked in a courtroom by her client, who had been accused of fatally stabbing his neighbor. As the attorney spoke for her client at the hearing, her client became disruptive and insisted he did not want his counsel to represent him. After several outbursts, the client lunged toward his attorney and pushed her across the room into a wall.
“Lawyers, who do not always have a choice over their clients, stand by people accused of violent crimes in what may be an incredibly stressful moment in their lives,” said Mazzeo. “Sometimes people don’t handle the pressure well, and the attorney is caught in the cross fire. We must make sure the attorneys who fight for justice every day receive justice themselves should they find themselves a victim of assault.”
Under current law, a simple assault committed against any attorney while they were engaging in courtroom responsibilities or because of their status as a member of the bar is a disorderly persons offense punishable by six months in prison, a fine of $1,000 or both. Aggravated assault under these circumstances would be a crime of the fourth degree punishable by 18 months in prison and fine of up to $10,000. It would be a crime of the third degree if the victim was injured, punishable by 3 to 5 years in prison and be a fine of up to $15,000.
The Atlantic County attorney’s client was charged with simple assault following the attack. Since the incident, Assemblymen Mazzeo and Armato have worked with Atlantic County prosecutor Damon Tyner to combat the issue of violence in the courtroom and ensure offenders are held accountable.
This bill would upgrade simple assault charges against an attorney to aggravated assault, which is the same level as an assault on a law enforcement officer and certain public officials like judges and teachers.
“Attorneys are not armed in the courtroom, nor do they receive training to defend themselves if they are attacked,” said Armato. “If they have a client who is prone to violence and receiving bad news from a judge, they may find themselves at risk. While we can’t prevent every assault, we can hold assailants accountable for their actions.”
The measure was introduced June 13 and was referred to the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee.