After a public defender was attacked in an Atlantic County courtroom by her client, two local assemblymen introduced a bill to upgrade charges against defendants who assault their counsel.
The bill, A-5589, would upgrade charges of simple assault to aggravated assault when it’s against an attorney while they are performing court duties or because of their status as counsel, according to a news release from Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo and John Armato, both D-Atlantic.
“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,” Mazzeo said. “Sometimes people don’t handle the pressure well, and the attorney is caught in the crossfire. We must make sure the attorneys who fight for justice every day receive justice themselves should they find themselves a victim of assault.”
In May, a man accused of fatally stabbing his neighbor lunged toward his attorney and pushed her across the room into a wall during a hearing in Atlantic County Superior Court, according to the release. He was charged with simple assault.
“Attorneys are not armed in the courtroom, nor do they receive training to defend themselves if they are attacked,” Armato said. “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.”
Mazzeo and Armato have since worked with Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner to combat the issue of violence in the courtroom and ensure offenders are held accountable, according to the release.
Public defenders, who do not select their clients, are particularly vulnerable, Tyner said in a statement, and “the penalties for an attack of a public servant should represent the severity of the crime.”
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“I am happy that our legislators saw the deficiency in the law, as I did, and agreed to change it,” Tyner said. “The public defender assaulted in the matter that prompted this change was simply doing her job, and did not deserve to be assaulted while she was standing up for the very person who became her attacker.”
Currently, a simple assault against an attorney while they’re working or because of their status as a member of the bar is a disorderly persons offense and is punishable by six months in prison, a fine of $1,000 or both, according to the release, while an aggravated assault under the same circumstances would be a fourth-degree crime and punishable by 18 months in prison and a maximum fine of $10,000.
If the victim is injured, it would become a third-degree crime, punishable by three to five years in prison and a maximum fine of $15,000.
The bill was introduced June 13 and referred to the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee.