NMI High Court vacates DOC officer’s assault conviction

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Posted on May 14 2019

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The Supreme Court has vacated the assault and battery conviction of Department of Corrections officer Ray A. Camacho, saying the trial court erred in the matter.

The CNMI High Court issued its opinion in Commonwealth v. Camacho on May 10, 2019, with a finding that the trial court had incorrectly interpreted the mens rea, or criminal intent, requirement of the statute.

Camacho sought the High Court’s review after the trial court issued its sentencing order and found him guilty of assault and battery, in violation of 6 CMC § 1202(a).

Camacho’s conviction stemmed from an incident that occurred while he was on duty at DOC.

One evening, an inmate buzzed DOC staff over the facility’s intercom, requesting medication. Camacho responded to the inmate; after a verbal exchange in which the inmate failed to comply with at least one of his oral commands, Camacho grabbed the inmate by the neck and forced him onto the floor. Following the incident, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands charged Camacho with assault and battery.

Because the statute required that the force used be unlawful, and Camacho had some authority to use force by virtue of his position, the Commonwealth was tasked with proving that the force Camacho used was against law, regulation, or order of DOC.

The trial court scrutinized an internal DOC training policy created to guide officers in using appropriate levels of force that prohibited chokeholds and blows to the head, face, and neck. The trial court found Camacho’s actions to be in violation of this policy and therefore unlawful, convicting him of assault and battery. The Supreme Court reviewed Camacho’s conviction.

Camacho disputed the trial court’s application of Section 1202(a)’s criminal intent element, claiming the statute requires that he have knowledge of the facts that make his conduct illegal.

The Supreme Court undertook to construe the statute, examining its plain language and tools of statutory construction and mens rea application, as well as the Model Penal Code’s guidance and states’ applications of the MPC’s mens rea principles. Importantly, it found that although ignorance of the law is usually no excuse, a legislature’s insertion of an element of unlawfulness makes knowledge of the law a requirement of the crime. The High Court thus read a mens rea of knowingly into the assault and battery statute. Because the trial court did not consider Camacho’s knowledge of his authority—or lack of it—to apply force to the inmate, it improperly applied the statute to him. The court’s failure to consider Camacho’s criminal intent was fatal to his conviction.

As a result, because the Supreme Court found the trial court improperly analyzed the mens rea required to be guilty of assault and battery, it vacated Camacho’s conviction.

The High Court’s full opinion is available at http://www.cnmilaw.org/supreme19.html. (PR)

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