A Morris County prosecutor asked the state Supreme Court on Monday to overturn an “absurd” interpretation of a sexual assault statute: one that seems to allow beating a victim so long as it is not too severe.
Assistant Morris County Prosecutor Paula Jordao told the court that the Appellate Division misinterpreted N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a)(3), which elevates the offense to first-degree aggravated sexual assault if “an act of sexual penetration of another person is committed under … the following circumstance: … [t]he act is committed during the commission, or attempted commission … of robbery, kidnapping, homicide, aggravated assault on another, burglary, arson or criminal escape.”
In State v. Rangel, A-88-11, Appellate Division Judges Laura LeWinn, Ariel Rodriguez and Donald Coburn said the use of the words “on another” meant that the assault had to be committed on a third person “for the purpose of compelling the submission of the sexual assault victim.”
Eric Rangel was charged with two counts of that crime — one in the first degree and one in the second degree — in connection with the April 22, 2007, sexual assault of an 18-year-old woman, identified as P.F., who was walking home alone after a party.
Police said Rangel approached the woman from behind and began beating her on the head. After she finally fell to the ground bleeding, Rangel sexually assaulted her and fled as police arrived at the scene.
A jury convicted Rangel, and he was sentenced to a 20-year term on the first-degree conviction and a consecutive 7-year term on the second-degree conviction. Relying on its interpretation of the statute, the Appellate Division vacated those convictions and the sentence. The state appealed.
“Courts should avoid statutory interpretations that lead to absurd or unreasonable results,” Jordao told the court. The ruling means that “as long as I don’t beat you up too much, I get a free pass.”
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner asked why another section of the statute — N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a)(6), elevating the crime to the first degree if there is “severe personal injury” — could not have been used.
“The victims’ injuries were not serious enough” to sustain the burden of that section, Jordao replied.
“She was repeatedly punched in the face,” Justice Barry Albin observed.
“From my understanding, that was not enough,” Jordao answered.
Rangel’s attorney, Assistant Deputy Public Defender Jason Coe, said the Appellate Division panel correctly interpreted the law. He said the Legislature intended there to be a third person who was being assaulted in order to coerce the sexual assault victim to submit, and that was not the scenario in this case.
Albin said there seemed to be a “certain disconnect” in that a defendant could commit an aggravated assault in the midst of a sexual assault and not be charged with it. “Isn’t that a little crazy?”
Coe said the Legislature wrote two separate sections, and the section Rangel was charged with violating was meant to address an assault on a third person. “That comports with the legislative history,” he said.
Albin asked if there was some public policy reason for how the statute was drafted.
Coe said the Legislature purposefully wrote two separate sections, with (a)(6) being reserved for assaults on a rape victim.
“You don’t need to deal with that in (a)(3),” he said.