CRIMINAL LAW

State v. Rangel

New Jersey Law Journal

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State v. Rangel, A-88 September Term 2011; Supreme Court; opinion by Albin, J.; decided April 29, 2013. On certification to the Appellate Division, 422 N.J. Super. 1 (App. Div. 2011). [Sat below: Judges A.A. Rodríguez, LeWinn and Coburn in the Appellate Division; Judge Ahto in the Law Division.] DDS No. 14-1-9768 [26 pp.]

After assaulting P.F., Eric Clemente Rangel was indicted for first-degree aggravated sexual assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a)(3); second-degree attempted aggravated sexual assault, 2C:5-1(a)(3) and 2C:14-2(a)(3); second-degree sexual assault, 2C:14-2(c)(1); second-degree aggravated assault, 2C:12-1(b)(1); and fourth-degree obstructing the administration of law, 2C:29-1.1. The trial court denied defendant's motion for a judgment of acquittal at the end of the state's case, finding that (a)(3) includes aggravated assault on the victim. Defendant was convicted on all counts.

The Appellate Division entered judgments of acquittal on the convictions for aggravated sexual assault and attempted aggravated sexual assault, concluding that the proper interpretation of "on another" in 2C:14-2(a)(3) is that the aggravated assault must be on a third person, committed for the purpose of compelling the submission of the sexual assault victim.

The state's petition for certification was granted. The issue is whether "on another" in (a)(3) refers to the victim, a person other than the victim, or both.

Held: Based on the statute's plain language and a textual reading of the statute as a whole, aggravated assault "on another" in N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a)(3) refers to someone other than the sexual assault victim. A contrary interpretation would mean that, under (a)(3), an attempt to commit significant bodily injury to the victim, although no injury was caused, would elevate sexual assault to aggravated sexual assault, which would render a nullity the requirement under (a)(6) that the state prove the victim sustained "severe personal injury" for an aggravated-sexual-assault conviction. Moreover, the Legislature did not intend to speak elliptically about a victim as "another" in (a)(3) when it specifically refers to "victim" throughout 2C:14-2(a), (b) and (c) when identifying the target of the sexual assault.

The court says that the pre-eminent issue here is one of statutory interpretation. It must construe the meaning of 2C:14-2(a)(3), first by looking at the contested words and then by viewing them in the setting of a larger enactment addressing sexual assaults.

N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2 describes the various forms of criminal sexual conduct that constitute first-degree aggravated sexual assault. Relevant here, a defendant is guilty of first-degree aggravated sexual assault if he commits an act of sexual penetration and uses physical force or coercion and severe personal injury is sustained by the victim, (a)(6), or if penetration occurs during the commission, or attempted commission, "of aggravated assault on another," (a)(3).

Under 2C:14-2(c)(1), one form of sexual assault occurs when a defendant "commits an act of sexual penetration with another person" and "uses physical force or coercion, but the victim does not sustain severe personal injury." One form of aggravated sexual assault occurs when a defendant "uses physical force or coercion and severe personal injury is sustained by the victim," (a)(6). The "severe personal injury" to the victim elevates sexual assault to aggravated sexual assault.

The court says clearly, the Legislature considered the fault line between a (c)(1) and an (a)(6) offense to be the enhanced violence and injury to the victim. If "on another" refers to the victim, not a third party, the (a)(6) requirement of "severe personal injury" is read out of the statute. That is because aggravated assault includes causing or attempting to cause serious or significant bodily injury. Under (a)(3), aggravated assault on another does not require the infliction of an injury, only the attempt to do so. It is difficult to imagine why the Legislature would require "severe personal injury" to the victim in (a)(6), to elevate sexual assault to aggravated sexual assault, if the attempt to cause significant bodily injury to the victim in (a)(3), which results in no injury, elevates sexual assault to aggravated sexual assault.

The court says that to avoid rendering any part of the statutory scheme meaningless, it is sensible to read "severe personal injury" in (a)(6) as intended to punish the enhanced violence committed against the victim and "aggravated assault on another" in (a)(3) as intended to punish violence against a third person that is used to render more vulnerable, exert control over, or coerce the sexual assault victim.

The court says the state's position is also undermined by the fact that, of the seven predicate offenses that elevate sexual assault to a first-degree offense, only aggravated assault is modified by "on another." If "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 or burglary in (a)(3).

Further, the Legislature repeatedly used "victim" to denote the target of an aggravated sexual assault throughout -2(a). It uses "victim" similarly in referring to the target of a sexual assault throughout -2(b) and (c). Thus, the Legislature knew how to use "victim" to make the precise point it intended to convey. "Another" cannot be equated with "victim" in (a)(3).

The court then says that a survey of the legislative history neither adds to nor detracts from its plain reading and textual analysis of -2(a).

Finally, the court says that because a plain reading of the contested statutory language, when viewed in its proper context and in light of the Legislature's objectives, leaves no ambiguity, there is no need to rely on the doctrine of lenity.

The court thus concludes that the Appellate Division correctly entered judgments of acquittal on the charges of aggravated sexual assault and attempted aggravated sexual assault. Defendant must be resentenced on all remaining convictions, including the second-degree sexual-assault conviction that had been merged into the now-dismissed aggravated-sexual-assault conviction.

Chief Justice Rabner and Justices LaVecchia, Hoens and Patterson and Judge Cuff, temporarily assigned, join in Justice Albin's opinion.

For appellant — Paula C. Jordao, Assistant Prosecutor (Fredric M. Knapp, Acting Morris County Prosecutor). For respondent — Jason A. Coe, Assistant Deputy Public Defender (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender).

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