The Massachusetts Appeals Court today affirmed the conviction of a man who stuck a police officer with a needle while being placed into custody. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Hamilton.
The defendant was charged with assault and battery after an interaction with a Worcester cop in July of 2012. Officer Ryan Stone was conducting a “wellness check” in a store’s bathroom. He ordered the occupant of the stall to come out and the defendant exited and placed his hands against the wall. The officer saw items intended to clean or use a hypodermic needle in the stall and further observed that the defendant was holding something in his right hand. The defendant disobeyed Officer Stone’s order that he drop the object in his hand. Officer Stone then asked the defendant where the needle was located and the defendant said it was in his pocket. The officer told the defendant to put his hands behind his back to be handcuffed. When the defendant failed to do so, Officer Stone grabbed the defendant’s left hand and placed handcuffs on his left wrist. Officer Stone once again ordered the defendant to drop whatever he was holding and then grabbed his right hand to complete the handcuffing process. The defendant thrust his hand at Officer Stone, who felt a stinging sensation. The officer had been pricked by the needle in the defendant’s hand.
The defendant was charged with assault and battery under a recklessness theory, which required the Commonwealth to prove that the defendant: (1) engaged in reckless conduct; (2) that resulted in a touching to another person; and (3) that produced a physical injury to that other person. The Commonwealth also needed to have proven that the defendant’s actions created a high likelihood that substantial harm would result to the other person; or that his actions disregarded a probable harmful consequence to another person and, as a result, the victim suffered a physical injury. The defendant asserted at trial that he had accidentally stuck the officer with the needle, and therefore was not criminally liable. On appeal, he argued that the evidence was insufficient as a matter of law to convict him of reckless assault and battery.
The Appeals Court concluded that the jury could have found that the defendant’s handling of the needle was reckless and created a high likelihood that Officer Stone would suffer substantial harm. Further, the needle stick suffered by Officer Stone satisfied the law’s requirement that the injury interfered with his health or comfort, and was not merely “transient” or “trifling,” which is insufficient to sustain a conviction. Therefore, the defendant’s conviction was affirmed.
This is an unusual case because most assault and battery cases involve allegations that the defendant intentionally touched another person without his or her consent. The recklessness theory of assault and battery is not commonly charged. Of course, the jury could have concluded that the defendant acted intentionally in refusing to drop the needle despite repeated demands by the police officer. This case represents the practical problem defense attorneys often encounter in defending unpopular crimes. This is the type of case that jurors might conclude was completely avoidable and resulted in a particularly scary type of injury (a needle stick with a possibly contaminated needle).