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Statutory Duty to Aid People You've Injured May Apply Even in Self-Defense Cases

So holds a New Jersey appellate court.


A New Jersey statute, 2C:12-1.2 ("Endangering an injured victim") provides,

[a.] A person is guilty of endangering an injured victim if he causes bodily injury to any person or solicits, aids, encourages, or attempts or agrees to aid another, who causes bodily injury to any person, and leaves the scene of the injury knowing or reasonably believing that the injured person is physically helpless, mentally incapacitated or otherwise unable to care for himself….

[c.] It is an affirmative defense to prosecution for a violation of this section that the defendant summoned medical treatment for the victim or knew that medical treatment had been summoned by another person, and protected the victim from further injury or harm until emergency assistance personnel arrived. This affirmative defense shall be proved by the defendant by a preponderance of the evidence.

In State v. Sanders, decided yesterday by the N.J. intermediate appellate court, the court (in an opinion by Judge Greta Gooden Brown, joined by Judges Jack Sabatino and Heidi Currier) held this applied even when the person had injured "another" in self-defense. Julian Sanders was prosecuted for first-degree murder, weapons possession, and endangering an injured victim:

The charges stemmed from defendant fatally stabbing Kendall Anthony on May 19, 2017, following an altercation during which Anthony forbade defendant from entering a store, threatened to beat defendant up, and threw a punch at defendant when he refused to heed his warnings. Defendant dodged the punch and stabbed Anthony once in the chest with a knife. Anthony staggered around, continued to yell at defendant, and collapsed on the ground twice, remaining on the ground after he collapsed the second time. Defendant left the scene without calling for medical assistance and went home. Anthony, who was breathing but unconscious when police responded, was transported to the hospital where he died the following morning from the stab wound….

The judge instructed the jury on self-defense as applied to all charges except the endangering charge. Following the trial, the jury convicted defendant of endangering and acquitted him of the remaining charges, apparently accepting defendant's self-defense claim. On November 9, 2018, defendant was sentenced to four years' probation.

The court concluded that,

[T]he endangering statute does not require the use of unlawful force or the commission of a crime by the defendant for liability to attach. As the [New Jersey Supreme Court explained in the earlier Munafo case], all that is required is for the defendant "to cause bodily injury [and] flee the scene [with] knowledge or a reasonable belief that the injured person was in a vulnerable state." Thus, whether the use of force was lawful is irrelevant for purposes of the endangering statute.

The court noted that sometimes the statute wouldn't apply, because of the "necessity" defense:

Arguably, other circumstances not present here, such as Anthony continuing to pose a threat after he had been stabbed by defendant, are addressed by other defenses, like the defense of necessity. Similar to "use of force," necessity, also referred to as the "choice of evils" defense, is a justification included in the third chapter of the Code, and provides:

[c]onduct which would otherwise be an offense is justifiable by reason of necessity to the extent permitted by law and as to which neither the code nor other statutory law defining the offense provides exceptions or defenses dealing with the specific situation involved and a legislative purpose to exclude the justification claimed does not otherwise plainly appear….

Similarly, had Anthony continued to pose a threat after the stabbing, defendant's conduct in "leav[ing] the scene" without summoning medical assistance could have arguably been consonant with his legal duty [set forth by New Jersey statutes] to retreat in lieu of continuing to use deadly force. In that sense, retreating by leaving would not only have been "permitted," but required by law.

Defendant argues anecdotally that "[i]t would be absurd for a person, after acting justifiably in self-defense, to have to stay and check if his attacker was 'physically helpless.'" While the argument is appealing, it presumes facts not in evidence. Here, after defendant stabbed Anthony in the chest, both parties immediately stopped fighting as Anthony, realizing that he had been stabbed, stumbled around before collapsing to the ground. As defendant watched Anthony bleed profusely from the stab wound, stumble, and collapse to the ground, he backed away, eventually walking home without any attempt to summon medical assistance.

Rather than imposing an obligation on defendant to secure the safety of his attacker while endangering himself, the application of the endangering statute in this case sought to preserve a life after the threat or need for force had been neutralized. Thus, self-defense does not apply to these circumstances….

Judge Sabatino joined the majority, but also added:

I wish to underscore our unanimous recognition that concepts of self-defense, necessity, or other principles of legal justification may appropriately pertain in some factual settings to relieve a crime victim, who has repelled and injured an attacker, of criminal liability … for failing to render aid to that wounded attacker.

A few illustrations might be instructive. Consider, for instance, a situation in which A and B are together on the first floor of A's home. Without provocation, A begins to punch B repeatedly. B tries to resist A, but A continues to pummel B. B manages to pull away momentarily and shoves A. A falls backwards down a flight of stairs, with A's head striking the basement floor below. Dazed and bleeding, A appears to B from the top of the stairs to be at least temporarily subdued. Worried that A might recover and resume the attack, B does not run down to the basement to check on A's vitals and instead flees immediately from the premises. Fearful that A might recover and retaliate against B for calling the police, B does not call for emergency aid.

Under a literal reading of [the statute], B could be charged with the crime of third-degree endangering if B reasonably believed, after pushing A down the stairs, that A was "physically helpless, mentally incapacitated or otherwise unable to care for himself [or herself]." Such a prosecution would run counter to principles of self-defense and a would-be victim's associated obligation to engage in a "safe retreat" instead of using or resuming the use of lethal force to repel an attacker. In addition, B's decision to not call 9-1-1 and thereby risk being harmed by A at a later time in retaliation might arguably be consistent with the public policies underlying the protection and safety of victims of domestic violence.

As a second illustration, imagine that C, a stranger, suddenly accosts D on a sidewalk at night, brandishes a knife and pulls D into a dark alleyway, and begins to sexually assault D. D grabs the knife away from C and plunges it into C's neck. C staggers to the pavement and utters, "I'm gonna get you for this!" Traumatized, D runs away for safety. Assume that D reasonably does not report the episode to the police, in order to maintain anonymity. D's conduct is arguably a logical follow-through of the reasonable use of force to repel an attacker in self-defense. Even if C may appear to be mortally wounded, D may be justified in not remaining at the scene or summoning medical treatment under a reasonable belief that such a call somehow might be traced to D's cell phone and deprive D of anonymity.

Neither of these hypothetical situations are comparable to the facts of this case that are detailed in the majority opinion and soundly analyzed. Nor, apart from the literal wording of [the endangerment statute], does it appear that the Legislature would want persons such as B and D punished as criminals for not calling 9-1-1.

These scenarios illustrate that we should be cautious in adopting an over-expansive reading of [the statute]. Although the statute is aimed at laudable humanitarian objectives, it must be construed and applied sensibly within the broad context of general principles of legal responsibility and criminal justice.

UPDATE: Prof. Joshua Dressler pointed out a similar case, State ex rel. Kuntz v. Montana 13th Jud. Dist. Ct. (Mont. 2000), which discussed a common-law "duty based on creation of the peril" and concluded,

[W]hen a person justifiably uses force to fend off an aggressor, that person has no duty to assist her aggressor in any manner that may conceivably create the risk of bodily injury or death to herself, or other persons. This absence of a duty necessarily includes any conduct that would require the person to remain in, or return to, the zone of risk created by the original aggressor. We find no authority that suggests that the law should require a person, who is justified in her use of force, to subsequently check the pulse of her attacker, or immediately dial 9-1-1, before retreating to safety.

Under the general factual circumstances described here, we conclude that the victim has but one duty after fending off an attack, and that is the duty owed to one's self — as a matter of self-preservation — to seek and secure safety away from the place the attack occurred. Thus, the person who justifiably acts in self-defense is temporarily afforded the same status as the innocent bystander under the American rule….

[T]he duty to summon aid may in fact be "revived" as the State contends, but only after the victim of the aggressor has fully exercised her right to seek and secure safety from personal harm. Then, and only then, may a legal duty be imposed to summon aid for the person placed in peril by an act of self-defense. We further hold that preliminary to imposing this duty, it must be shown that 1) the person had knowledge of the facts indicating a duty to act; and 2) the person was physically capable of performing the act….

We [further] hold that a person, who is found to have used justifiable force, but who nevertheless fails to summon aid in dereliction of the legal duty as defined here, may be found criminally negligent only where the failure to summon aid is the cause-in-fact of death, rather than the use of force itself.

Furthermore, it is important to emphasize that even where such a duty "revives" under the foregoing analysis, the breach of this duty should not be construed as constituting criminal negligence per se. To the contrary, it is entirely conceivable that in circumstances where such a legal duty may rightfully be imposed, a failure to summon medical assistance — due to fear, shock, or some other manifestation resulting from the confrontation — would not be a gross deviation from an ordinary standard of care as required by Montana's negligent homicide statute. Thus, a breach of the legal duty to summon aid may be the cause-in-fact of death, but is still not necessarily a crime …. Moreover, as in ordinary negligence cases, the existence of a legal duty to act — whether at the time of injury or later by "revival" — is a question of law, while the breach of the duty is for determination by the fact finder.

But note again that has to do with the common-law duty, not an express statutory duty such as that in New Jersey.