Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (No. F-7707-96) Hon. Mildred M. Edwards, Trial Judge
Before Steadman, Farrell, and Glickman, Associate Judges.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Glickman, Associate Judge
Argued September 21, 2000
In this appeal, appellant Jacqueline Newby contends that a parent may not be convicted of the offense of simple assault for using excessive force to discipline her minor child, at least not unless the government proves that the parent acted with malice. Although this proposition suggests broader questions concerning the limits placed by the criminal law on the use of corporal punishment in parental discipline, we are not persuaded by the specific arguments that appellant presents. We hold that the government may prosecute parent-child assaults as violations of the simple assault statute, and that the government does not need to prove malice in order to overcome the parental discipline defense and secure a conviction. We therefore affirm appellant's conviction in this case.
On a warm Monday afternoon in September, appellant brought her children to a park in southwest Washington, D.C., for a family outing. Before long a commotion broke out, attracting the attention of witnesses who were picnicking nearby. These witnesses watched as appellant, screaming obscenities, pummeled and kicked her six-year-old daughter, who was crying and trying to run away. Dismayed and alarmed, the witnesses summoned the police. Appellant was arrested and charged with second degree cruelty to children, a ten-year felony. The government later dropped that charge, choosing instead to prosecute appellant on one count of simple assault, a 180-day misdemeanor. A bench trial on that charge was held before the Honorable Mildred M. Edwards.
Three eyewitnesses called by the government testified that appellant struck her daughter some ten to fifteen times on her head, neck and shoulders, and kicked her with a shod foot in the middle of her back. The beating continued after appellant knocked her daughter to the ground. The witnesses particularly remembered seeing appellant smack her daughter's face with the back of her hand, on which appellant was wearing several prominent rings.
Testifying in her own defense, appellant explained that her daughter had been misbehaving all afternoon and was especially wild and overexcited at the picnic area. Appellant feared that the child, who was running around in a "rage," would fall in the Potomac River, burn herself on a hot barbecue grill, or run in the path of a car. After exhausting non-violent efforts to distract and quiet her daughter, appellant said, she grabbed and hit the child. Appellant also kicked her in the back of her leg, in order, she said, to stop her from running away toward the river. Appellant admitted that she was angry and had lost control of the situation. She insisted, however, that she never intended to hurt her daughter, but only to discipline her for her own good. Appellant testified, without contradiction, that the child suffered no physical injuries.
Appellant's counsel made timely motions for a judgment of acquittal, submitting on the record without identifying any particular reason why the evidence was insufficient as a matter of law. Thereafter, in closing argument, counsel argued that appellant was privileged to employ reasonable force "for the purpose" of parental discipline, so long as she did not use "excessive" force and cause her daughter serious physical injury.
Concluding that the government had met its "burden to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant's conduct was not justified by the exercise of reasonable parental discipline," Judge Edwards found appellant guilty of simple assault. Crediting the testimony of the government's "reasonable eyewitnesses," the judge rejected appellant's claim that she had administered reasonable discipline. Rather, Judge Edwards found, appellant manifestly developed "a pretty high level of anger" when her unruly daughter continued to disobey her, "cross[ed] the line into a wilful display of anger at the child, . . . . lost it with [her daughter] and . . . beat [her]."
Appellant makes two arguments for reversal of her conviction. First, she argues that the misdemeanor simple assault statute, D.C. Code § 22-404 (a) (2001), does not apply at all to assaults by parents on their own children. Appellant argues that parent-child assaults may be prosecuted only under the felony cruelty to children statute, D.C. Code § 22-1101 (2001). Thus, appellant contends, the information in this case fails to state an offense.
Second, and alternatively, appellant argues that even if D.C. Code § 22-404 (a) is applicable to parent-child assaults, the government must prove that a parent acted with malice in order to overcome the "parental discipline" defense. Appellant contends that the government failed to prove malice in this case, and that the evidence therefore was insufficient to support her conviction.
The government argues that appellant forfeited her first argument by not making it to the trial court, and that in any event, the simple assault statute does not contain any exception, express or implied, for assaults by parents on their children. As to appellant's second argument, the government acknowledges the parental discipline defense to a charge of simple assault, but argues that it may overcome that defense without ...