New Jersey’s highest court has clarified that a law making aggravated sexual assault a first-degree crime when committed during "aggravated assault on another" applies only if there’s a second victim.
The Supreme Court on Monday agreed with the Appellate Division’s finding that the Legislature did not intend the reference to "another" in N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a)(3) to include the sex attack victim.
Otherwise, the provision in (a)(3) allowing a conviction for aggravated sexual assault where the defendant attempted to cause significant bodily injury to the victim, but no such injury resulted, would nullify another section of the statute, (a)(6), requiring that the state prove that the victim sustained a "severe personal injury."
Eric Rangel was convicted of first-degree aggravated sexual assault and other crimes for his attack on an 18-year-old woman walking home from a party in Lake Hiawatha in the early morning hours of April 22, 2007. He pummeled her face, causing her to fall and strike her head, and then tore off her clothing and sexually assaulted her.
At the conclusion of the state’s case in the jury trial, Rangel moved for a judgment of acquittal on 2C:14-2(a)(3). Superior Court Judge Salem Vincent Ahto denied the motion, finding the Legislature could not have intended the "absurd result" of punishing for the act of penetrating one victim while simultaneously committing an aggravated assault on another.
But Appellate Division Judges Laura LeWinn, Ariel Rodriguez and Donald Coburn said "on another" applies to a situation when an actor commits aggravated assault, or attempts to do so, on a third party, such as a spouse or a child, in order to compel a victim to submit.
The state petitioned the Supreme Court for certification.
Justice Barry Albin, writing for the court, said a "sensible reading" of the statute is that the "severe personal injury" provision of (a)(6) is intended to punish enhanced violence committed against the victim, whereas the "aggravated assault on another" provision is intended to punish accompanying violence against a third person — perhaps a relative or friend — that is used as a means to render the victim more vulnerable or exert more control over her.
Albin found the state’s position was undermined by the fact that, of seven predicate offenses elevating sexual assault to first-degree offense in (a)(3), only aggravated assault is modified by the term "on another." The statute also provides that penetration of a victim is aggravated sexual assault when "the act is committed during the commission, or attempted commission, of robbery, kidnapping, homicide, aggravated assault on another, burglary, arson or criminal escape," Albin said.
"If, as the state suggests, ‘on another’ refers to the victim, it is difficult to comprehend the legislature’s purpose in not using the term for such predicate crimes as kidnapping, robbery and burglary in (a)(3)," he said.
Furthermore, the Legislature used the word "victim" to refer to the target of a sexual assault throughout the sexual assault statute, but did not use it in (a)(3), the court said. When the Legislature includes limiting language in one part of a statute, but leaves it out of another, a court should assume a different meaning was intended, Albin concluded.
The case was remanded to the trial court for resentencing. With the conviction for first-degree aggravated sexual assault vacated, Rangel will be resentenced for second-degree sexual assault, which had been merged into the greater charge. The change may knock a decade off his 20-year sentence.
Acting Morris County Prosecutor Frederic Knapp said the ruling "clarified an issue of first impression as to the statutory interpretation under the State’s sexual assault law." He said his office will argue "that the defendant be punished to the full extent of the law on the remaining charges."
Rangel’s lawyer on appeal, Assistant Deputy Public Defender Jason Coe, said the court "reached the right result," and added that the state has other options for charging this type of offense.