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Narrow but important opinion regarding mens rea

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by: Ryan Scott • September 19, 2018 • no comments

Today, in State v. Pryor, the COA re-affirmed that the mental state of "intentionally" applies to "serious physical injury" in a charge of assault I, rejecting the state's argument that some pre-Barnes case law saying the same thing should be overruled. At trial, the judge found that the pre-Barnes case law was already overruled by St v Barnes and instructed the jury that Mr. Pryor did not need to intend serious physical injury; he only needed to intend an injury that turned out be serious. Mr. Pryor's Assault I conviction was reversed and remanded for a new trial. The remaining convictions stood.

The short opinion is worth reading, and it may be helpful in the following way. I have long argued that Barnes has been effectively overruled by St v Simonov, and that in assault II (or APSO or Criminal Mistreatment), a "knowing" mental state applies to the injury, serious or not. The alternative argument -- if Barnes is not overruled -- is that when the assault charge is generally charged "knowingly," criminal negligence applies to physical injury, so that if you punch someone (i.e., you don't have a weapon), resulting in serious physical injury, you at least have to be negligent as to that serious physical injury.

The flukier the injury, the more helpful such an instruction would be.

The state generally argues that Barnes is against us on the first issue (which is true), but on "criminal negligence" the prosecutor will likely argue that Barnes held that NO mental state applied to injury. In fact Barnes doesn't say that, but it's a common misunderstanding among both prosecutors and judges.

Today's opinion -- Pryor -- makes plain the second argument is wrong. The Pryor court makes clear that the Barnes decision is strictly limited to whether "knowingly" applies to the injury. It says nothing about the application of any other mental states.

The issue in Barnes was focused on the meaning of only one of several culpable mental states that may be in play in second-degree assault. At issue in Barnes was the culpable mental state, “knowingly,” in one of the several forms of second-degree assault.

Pryor doesn't discuss criminal negligence because it doesn't need to. It's focus is on whether "intentionally" applies to serious physical injury. And, as mentioned above, it does. But in footnote 1 in that opinion, it has the key quote from Simonov that would support criminal negligence applying to assaults with a knowing mental state.

The state’s reading of Barnes, even if limited to the context of second-degree assault, does not take into account later Supreme Court cases that have clarified how mental states attach to different elements of a crime. See, e.g., State v. Simonov, 358 Or 531, 539-40, 368 P3d 11 (2016) (“Unless otherwise indicated for a particular offense, ‘conduct’ elements require proof of an intentional or knowing mental state, ‘result’ elements require proof of an intentional, reckless, or criminally negligent mental state, and ‘circumstance’ elements require proof of a knowing, reckless, or criminally negligent mental state. The state may plead and prove the least culpable of the applicable mental states for a particular element of an offense. ORS 161.115(3). As a result, the minimum culpable mental state for elements that constitute conduct is knowledge, and the minimum culpable mental state for result and circumstance elements is criminal negligence.” (Internal citation omitted.)). The state has not developed any argument how the various mental states apply to the elements of first-degree assault under those more recent Supreme Court cases, let alone an argument that persuades us that our conclusion in Peacock is plainly wrong under a modern approach.

That footnote is satisfying in another way. When responding to the argument that Simonov changes the whole approach to mental states and elements, prosecutors frequently say, "no, it doesn't." They argue that Simonov is a property crime case and says nothing about "assault." That position is inconsistent with that quote of above that strongly implies ("the modern approach") that the rules have changed and the state needs to be prepared to recognize that.

(Incidentally, when arguing against criminal negligence applying to $ value in theft or criminal mischief, the state says the Jones case also says no mental state applies. The state is wrong there too.)

In sum, Pryor represents an important step towards obtaining accurate jury instructions where the standard instructions either mis-state the law or are otherwise incomplete.