A local courtroom attack in May made apparent the need for legislation introduced last month by Atlantic County Democratic Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo and John Armato.
An Atlantic County public defender had been appointed to represent a man accused of fatally stabbing his neighbor. As the attorney spoke for him in a courtroom hearing, he became disruptive and insisted he didn’t want her to represent him. Then the defendant reportedly lunged at his attorney and pushed her across the room and into a wall.
The public defender’s client was charged with simple assault, a disorderly persons offense punishable by up to six months in prison, a fine of $1,000 or both.
After the incident, Mazzeo and Armato worked with Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner to better hold accountable those who assault an attorney, prosecuting authority or other legal staff engaged in court-related duties.
Mazzeo said, “Attorneys who fight for justice every day (should) receive justice themselves should they find themselves a victim of assault.” Armato noted that attorneys aren’t armed in court nor usually trained in self-defense, even as they sometimes put themselves at risk. Tyner said that in the May incident, “the public defender … was simply doing her job and did not deserve to be assaulted while standing up for the very person who became her attacker.”
The assemblymen’s bill would make it an aggravated assault to attack an attorney engaged in courtroom duties or due to their status as counsel — punishable by up to 18 months in prison and a $10,000 fine. If the victim is injured, it would be considered a third-degree crime, with the perpetrator facing three to five years in prison and up to a $15,000 fine.
These same added levels of punishment currently discourage attacks on numerous other public servants whose work requires them to interact with potentially violent people — including law enforcement officers, judges, teachers, firefighters and prison and public utility employees.
Legal counsel, who sometimes must work closely with people already accused of violent crimes, deserve the same expectation that attacking them in the course of their duties will bring a strong response from the criminal justice system.
We’re glad to see that a Senate version of the Mazzeo-Armato bill has been introduced by Sen. Anthony R. Bucco, R-Morris, Somerset, making it the bipartisan effort it should be. We hope it clears both chambers and is signed into law this year.