It's in Your Court: One punch leads to prison

It is very tragic that the following scenario is repeated with relative frequency in Minnesota:

An argument occurs in a bar in the early morning hours when those in attendance have consumed more than enough alcohol for their judgment to be impaired. It could be one guy saying something rude or antagonizing to another guy or his girlfriend. So they take their argument out to the parking lot. One sucker punches the other, the victim falls down, hits his head on the ground, and dies from his injuries. Ultimately, the assailant goes to prison.

The Minnesota Supreme Court, last November, ruled that in a trial for first-degree manslaughter, the State need not prove that death or great bodily harm was reasonably foreseeable. Not surprisingly, this case arose from a fight outside a bar and only one punch. At its most basic, to be convicted of first-degree manslaughter, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Defendant in this case intended the act of striking the victim (assault), not that he intended to cause death or great bodily harm to the victim. This particular Defendant was sentenced to 51 months in prison.

“Mens rea” is a Latin term referring to criminal intent and translates to “guilty mind.” It refers to the state of mind of the criminal defendant and is usually necessary for guilt to be proven. One must be aware of his/her misconduct, but need not be aware that it is a crime. Criminal laws are usually organized so that higher levels of “blameworthiness” correlate with greater liability and harsher sentencing. 

In the hierarchy of person crimes, for example, planning and carrying out the death of a person (murder) is more serious than intending to punch someone in the face, but not intending their death (manslaughter). The Model Penal Code has the following 4-tiered classification for culpable states of mind:

1. Acting purposely - the defendant had an underlying conscious object to act

2. Acting knowingly - the defendant is practically certain that the conduct will cause a particular result

3. Acting recklessly - The defendant consciously disregarded a substantial and unjustified risk

4. Acting negligently - The defendant was not aware of the risk, but should have been aware of the risk.

In summary, the more purposeful the act, the more serious the crime and the more serious the punishment. And to be clear: intoxication is not a defense.

JUDGE STEVE HALSEY,  Wright County District Court, is chambered in Buffalo and is the host of “The District Court Show” on local cable TV public access channels throughout the Tenth Judicial District. Excerpts can be viewed at WWW.QCTV.org. Go to Community and click “The District Court Show.” 

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