N.H. Reps Seek Assault Law Change

Two With Arrest Records Want To Reclass Charge to Violation

Three state representatives — including two arrested in recent years for simple assault — have introduced a bill that would reduce simple assault from a misdemeanor crime to a violation-level offense in cases of physical contact that doesn’t result in any “harm or injury.”

Law enforcement officials and domestic-violence groups oppose the bill, saying it would empower bullies and abusers. But supporters say the current law is draconian and too broad.

“If you’re like I have been, you’ve found situations where this has been taken to egregious levels, to the point where the only harm committed, the only harm whatsoever — and serious harm, detrimental harm — occurs by the charge, from the assault charge,” Rep. Frank Sapareto, R-Derry, told the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee yesterday. Sapareto was arrested last year for simple assault, though he’s fighting the charges.

Under state law, simple assault is, among other things, when someone “purposely or knowingly causes bodily injury or unprivileged physical contact to another.” It’s a misdemeanor that can carry up to a year in jail.

But if the bill passes, simple assault would be a violation-level offense in a case of “unprivileged physical contact” that “does not result in harm or injury.” In such cases, the punishment would be limited to a $100 fine and 10 hours of community service.

The bill is opposed by the state Department of Safety, the attorney general’s office and the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police.

“This law would be especially popular with bullies and abusive spouses and ex-lovers, who would soon know just how far they could push the envelope without any serious consequences,” said Earl Sweeney, assistant commissioner of safety.

But Sapareto said the bill would save everyone time and money by preventing lengthy criminal prosecutions for minor incidents.

“If you bumped into a fellow legislator on the way here, would you want to have a warrant issued for your arrest? Because the law allows that to happen,” he said.

Sapareto spoke about the law from personal experience: Last year, he was arrested and charged with three counts of simple assault. He says he simply pushed a man who was threatening a woman, and his court case is ongoing.

In addition to Sapareto, the bill is sponsored by Rep. Keith Murphy and Rep. Kelleigh Murphy, both Bedford Republicans.

Kelleigh Murphy was arrested in 2009 for simple assault. Keith Murphy told the committee yesterday that his wife, who wasn’t able to attend the hearing, did nothing more than tap the shoulder of an employee at their Manchester restaurant, Murphy’s Taproom.

The employee later called the police after being fired, he said, and his wife was arrested, booked and eventually taken to court, where the charge was dropped.

“It was humiliating for her,” he said.

He added, “These are real issues and they do happen. So that’s why she and I decided to co-sponsor this bill. . . . She didn’t want to bring this all up again, after it’s finally buried. But she felt that she had to, to try to avoid this from happening again to somebody else.”

But Jill Rockey, executive director of the Crisis Center of Central New Hampshire, told the committee yesterday that the bill would make it more difficult for the police to prosecute cases of domestic violence.

“Not all crimes leave physical bruising or injury,” she said. “For example, when you twist someone’s arm behind their back, when you slap them ... none of these acts leave a physical mark on a victim. That does not mean they should be classified as a violation.”

“Batterers do everything they can to hide their crimes, and if this bill passed, it would make it impossible for prosecutors to convict batterers of domestic violence unless they caused bodily injury,” Rockey continued. “Is that really the type of standard we want to set at this time in New Hampshire?”

The committee heard nearly an hour of testimony yesterday but didn’t debate or vote on the bill.