New York’s “One Punch” Rule
Criminal law often requires only that you intended to commit the criminal act, not that you intended a particular result. If a defendant intentionally shoots someone with a gun who gets killed in the process, the defendant can be charged with killing that person even if they only intended to scare or minimally harm them. Certain aggravated crimes, however, require that the defendant actually intended the result–these are known as “specific intent” crimes. A murder conviction, for example, requires that the defendant intended the victim to die.
Cases in between, however, can raise complex questions of mental culpability. What happens if a defendant merely punched someone once, causing that person to fall, hit their head, and die? Can the defendant be charged with a more serious degree of assault, or even manslaughter, because of an unexpected result? Continue reading to learn about so-called “one punch” homicides in New York and how the law treats such cases. Call a seasoned New York homicide defense lawyer for advice and representation.
Misdemeanor Assault vs. Felony Assault
A defendant can be charged with assault in the third degree if they cause physical injury to a victim and it was their intent to do so, such as by throwing a punch. Third-degree assault is a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum of one year in jail.
If the defendant caused the victim “serious physical injury,” however, and intended to do so, then the defendant can be charged with assault in the second degree. Second-degree assault is a much more serious crime – a felony punishable by up to seven years in prison.
The difference turns on two important factors: (1) whether the victim suffered a serious injury; and (2) whether the defendant intended to cause serious physical injury. Under New York law, a defendant can only be charged with a felony if the defendant intended to seriously harm the victim (or if they used a deadly instrument such as a firearm).
Courts have been reluctant to allow more serious charges to carry if the prosecution can only prove that a victim suffered a serious injury, but not that the defendant intended such injury. This has led to what some call the “one punch” defense: A defendant gets into an altercation with another person, throws a punch (or several) intending only to cause minimal injury, and the defendant suffers much more serious injury. For example, the defendant slips, hits their head on the sidewalk, and falls into a coma. Under New York law, as it currently stands, so long as the prosecution cannot prove the defendant actually intended to cause more than minor harm to the victim, the defendant should not be convicted of aggravated assault.
Assault vs. Manslaughter
The importance of intent is even more pronounced in the case of homicide. A defendant who causes the death of a person by way of criminal negligence can be charged with criminally negligent homicide, a class E felony. If the defendant acted with criminal recklessness, they can be charged with second-degree manslaughter, a class C felony. If the defendant intended to cause serious physical injury and “accidentally” caused the death of the victim, they can be charged with manslaughter in the first degree, a class B felony punishable by up to 25 years in prison.
Where does throwing one punch fall in the classification of intent? Under current New York law, throwing a single punch may not give rise to any sort of homicide charge. In fact, if no harm was intended, or if only minimal harm was intended, the “one punch” rule may limit the charges available to misdemeanor assault. The one punch rule is commonly invoked when the “victim” was actively involved in the fight, such as if it were a barroom brawl. Criminal negligence may not even apply because negligence assumes the defendant was or should have been aware of a risk of death; a reasonable person may not consider that throwing a single punch carries a risk of death.
There have been several legislative attempts to remove the so-called one-punch loophole, but these have yet to pass. Under current law, a defendant who throws a single punch that unexpectedly causes serious injury or death can only face misdemeanor assault charges. If the prosecution can show intent to cause more serious injury or death, more serious charges may result.
Zealous Legal Help Fighting Your New York Assault and Homicide Charges
If you have been arrested for assault, manslaughter, homicide, or other serious criminal offenses in New York, call Dupée & Monroe, P.C., to get help from a dedicated criminal defense lawyer. From our offices in Goshen, we represent clients charged with all manner of criminal offenses in Orange County and throughout the Hudson Valley.