Massachusetts Appeals Court Applies Transferred Intent Doctrine to Uphold Assault Conviction

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today ruled that a juvenile court judge properly applied the transferred intent doctrine to convict a high school student of assault with a dangerous weapon.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Oswaldo O.

On May 24, 2016, three high school students were eating lunch at a restaurant in Chelsea.  The juvenile defendant approached their table and asked one of the students which gang he belonged to, apparently believing the Chicago Bulls hat he was wearing indicated he belonged to the MS gang.  The defendant told the student to remove his hat and then opened his backpack and displayed a knife.  The defendant soon left the restaurant but waited outside for the students to leave.  After they finished their lunch, the students exited the restaurant and began walking through a park on their way back to school.  The defendant began closely following them on a bicycle and again ordered the student to remove his Bulls hat if he wanted to avoid trouble.  After threatening the student, the defendant again opened his backpack and reached for his knife.  The students were able to run away from the defendant and return to their school.  A judge determined the juvenile was guilty of assault with a dangerous weapon and he appealed.

An assault can be committed in one of two ways.  An assault can be an attempted battery (for example, throwing a punch at someone but missing).  An assault can also be an immediately threatened battery (for example, engaging in threatening behavior that reasonably caused a victim to believe an imminent battery was forthcoming).  This case falls into the second category of assault – the defendant warned the student to take off his hat to avoid trouble and then brandished a knife.  It was reasonable for the student to believe he was about to be the victim of a battery with a dangerous weapon.  The twist in this case is that the defendant was not convicted of committing an assault against the student who was wearing the Bulls hat – instead, the defendant was convicted of assaulting one of the student’s friends (who flinched when the defendant displayed the knife).  The defendant argued he had intended to place the student with the Bulls hat in fear, and not his friend.  Therefore, argued the defendant, because he did not intentionally place the named victim in fear, he should not have been convicted.  The Appeals Court disagreed and affirmed his conviction.

The Appeals Court applied the doctrine of transferred intent.  The doctrine states that if a defendant intends to commit a crime against one person, but unintentionally injures a third party, he is guilty as if he had carried out the crime on the intended victim.  For example, if a husband shoots a gun at his wife, but the bullet misses the wife and accidentally strikes and kills the babysitter, the defendant is guilty of murder even though he did not intend to shoot the babysitter.  Transferred intent is sometimes explained as “the intent follows the bullet.”  In this case, the Appeals Court concluded the evidence was sufficient to establish the defendant attempted to intimidate the student with the Bulls hat.  Therefore, his guilty intent could be applied to any other person who was injured by his criminal act.