State v. Smith

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
Writing for the CourtPASHMAN; SULLIVAN; SULLIVAN; The authority of Hale
Citation426 A.2d 38,85 N.J. 193
Parties, 24 A.L.R.4th 90 STATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Albert SMITH, Defendant-Respondent.
Decision Date10 February 1981

Page 193

85 N.J. 193
426 A.2d 38, 24 A.L.R.4th 90
STATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Albert SMITH, Defendant-Respondent.
Supreme Court of New Jersey.
Argued Nov. 5, 1980.
Decided Feb. 10, 1981.

[426 A.2d 39]

Page 195

Margaret Ann F. Mullins, Asst. Essex County Prosecutor, for plaintiff-appellant (John J. Degnan, Atty. Gen., attorney; Donald S. Coburn, Essex County Prosecutor, of counsel; Andrea R. Grundfest, Asst. Essex County Prosecutor, on the brief).

William Welaj, Somerville, Designated Counsel, for defendant-respondent (Stanley C. Van Ness, Public Defender, attorney).

Page 196

Regina C. Little, New Brunswick, and Phyllis Gelman submitted a brief on behalf of amicus curiae National Center on Women and Family Law, Inc.

The opinion of the Court was delivered by

PASHMAN, J.

Since the enactment in New Jersey of the new Code of Criminal Justice, N.J.S.A. 2C:1-1 to 98-4, L. 1978, c. 95, no person can claim that a sexual assault committed after the effective date of the Code, September 1, 1979, is exempt from prosecution because the accused and victim were husband and wife. The Criminal Code expressly excludes marriage to the victim as a defense against prosecution of sexual crimes. N.J.S.A. 2C:14-5(b). The criminal acts alleged in this case, however, occurred before the effective date of the Code. The issue before the Court is whether a defendant can be charged with and convicted of raping his wife under the former statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:138-1. We hold that, at least under the circumstances of this case, he can.

I

The State alleges that on October 1, 1975, defendant Albert Smith broke into the apartment of his estranged wife, Alfreda Smith, and repeatedly beat and raped her. On that date the accused and victim were legally married. They had been married for seven years but had lived separately for approximately one year. The separation may have followed another violent incident involving defendant and his wife in September 1974. Although the record is not clear on this point, Alfreda Smith testified that she and the defendant appeared before a judge, who ordered the defendant to leave the marital home. Counsel have informed this Court that the existence of such an order cannot be verified because it would have been issued six years ago and sound recordings of oral Municipal Court orders are kept for only three years. Therefore, we must assume that no

Page 197

judicial orders recognizing separation or restraining contact existed at the time of the alleged criminal acts. It also appears from the record that the parties had not entered into a formal agreement setting down the terms [426 A.2d 40] of their separation, nor had either filed a complaint for divorce.

At the time of the alleged incident on October 1, 1975, defendant and his wife lived in different cities. The State accuses defendant of arriving at his wife's apartment at about 2:30 a. m., breaking through two doors to get inside, and once there threatening, choking and striking her. According to the State, over a period of a few hours he repeatedly beat her, forced her to have sexual intercourse and committed various other atrocities against her person. As a result of these alleged attacks, Alfreda Smith required medical care at a hospital.

After hearing testimony on December 11, 1975, and January 5, 1976, the Essex County Grand Jury returned an indictment charging defendant with four separate counts atrocious assault and battery, private lewdness, impairing the morals of a minor, and rape. Defendant moved to dismiss the rape charge on the ground that he was legally married to the victim at the time of the incident. The trial judge reluctantly granted the motion. He believed that the common law included a marital exemption from the crime of rape, which was implicitly incorporated into this State's statutory definition of rape from early Revolutionary times to the present. Although the trial judge expressed unequivocal disapproval of such an anachronistic rule of law, he considered it the prerogative of the Legislature to change it. See 148 N.J.Super. 219, 372 A.2d 386 (Law Div.1977).

The State appealed the dismissal of the rape count to the Appellate Division,1 R. 2:3-1; 2:5-6(a), which affirmed the judgment of the trial court, stating:

Page 198

There is ample reasonable cause to believe that the common law rule excluding a husband from a statute condemning rape has heretofore obtained in New Jersey if for no other reason than because the rule did exist at common law and has not been abrogated here by legislation or judicial decision. (169 N.J.Super. at 101, 404 A.2d 331)

The appellate court did not agree with the trial judge that it was beyond a trial court's authority to change such a rule of law. Id. at 100. Nevertheless, it declined to make a change here because the new rule could not be applied retroactively to this defendant and the Legislature had already changed the law for future acts of marital rape by enactment of N.J.S.A. 2C:14-5(b) as part of the Criminal Code.

We granted the State's petition for certification, 82 N.J. 292, 412 A.2d 798 (1980), to consider the reach of our former rape statute.

II

The rape statute under which defendant was charged provided in part:

Any person who has carnal knowledge of a woman forcibly against her will ... is guilty of a high misdemeanor and shall be punished by a fine of not more than $5,000, or by imprisonment for not more than 30 years, or both .... (N.J.S.A. 2A:138-1 (repealed))

The State argues that the statute covered the conduct of a husband against his wife because it applied to "any person."

This argument, although superficially appealing, does not resolve the issue before the Court. The marital exemption, if it existed, may have acted as a defense by negating some element of the crime. Thus the statute may well have applied to "any person," but a husband's forcible sexual intercourse with his wife was not rape because it did not include all three elements of the crime carnal knowledge, force, and lack of consent, see State v. Heyer, 89 N.J.L. 187, 98 A. 413 (E & A 1916). Similarly, the reference to "any person" could be construed not to include infants; insane persons, who lack the necessary state of mind to form an intent to rape; or women, at least as the principal actor. Thus, our inquiry must go beyond the "plain meaning" of the statute, the language of which alone does not reveal whether a husband [426 A.2d 41] was exempt from the charge of raping his wife.

Page 199

Defendant, by contrast, contends that a marital exemption had always been part of this State's criminal law of rape until enactment of the new Criminal Code. Yet he is unable to cite any statutory or judicial authority from this State to support his position. In fact, prior to the decisions of the courts below, the only case in New Jersey that considered whether a marital exemption from rape existed under N.J.S.A. 2A:138-1 expressly declined to decide the issue. In re Faas, 42 N.J.Super. 31, 37, 125 A.2d 724 (App.Div.1956), cert. denied, 353 U.S. 940, 77 S.Ct. 820, 1 L.Ed.2d 762 (1957). Nevertheless, defendant contends that the exemption was a rule of English common law which was incorporated into New Jersey's first rape statute in 1796 and remained unchanged throughout the time that N.J.S.A. 2A:138-1 was in effect.

The first State Constitution of New Jersey provided for a limited incorporation of English common and statutory law in existence at that time by providing:

That the common law of England, as well as so much of the statute law, as have been heretofore practiced in this colony, shall still remain in force, until they shall be altered by a future law of the legislature; such parts only excepted, as are repugnant to the rights and privileges contained in this charter.... (N.J.Const. (1776), Art. XXII)

Thus, English common law as of 1776 became part of this State's law after the Revolution subject to change by the Legislature or except where in conflict with the State Constitution. 2 The 1844 Constitution likewise kept in force laws then in effect. N.J.Const. (1844), Art. X, § 1. Finally, our current State Constitution states:

All law, statutory and otherwise, all rules and regulations of administrative bodies and all rules of courts in force at the time this Constitution or any Article thereof takes effect shall remain in full force until they expire or are superseded, altered or repealed by this Constitution or otherwise. (N.J.Const. (1947), Art. XI, § 1, par. 3)

Page 200

See also Collopy v. Newark Eye and Ear Infirmary, 27 N.J. 29, 48-49, 141 A.2d 276 (1958) (Heher, J., dissenting). The result of these successive constitutional provisions is that certain centuries-old rules of law may still be the law in this State. The question in this case is whether a marital exemption from rape was, at the time of defendant's conduct, one such rule. To answer that question, we must first consider whether there actually existed a marital exemption rule under pre-Revolutionary common law.

A

Sir Matthew Hale, a seventeenth century English jurist, wrote a treatise on English law which is invariably cited as authority for the rule. Hale discussed the crime of rape and possible defenses, stating:

But the husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract. (1 Hale, History of the Pleas of the Crown * 629)

Hale cited no authority for this proposition and we have found none in earlier writers. Thus the marital exemption rule expressly adopted by many of our sister states has its source in a bare, extra-judicial declaration made some 300 years ago. Such a declaration cannot itself be considered a definitive and binding statement of the common law, although legal commentators have often restated the rule since the time of Hale...

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24 practice notes
  • Nicole B. v. Sch. Dist. of Phila., No. 16 EAP 2019
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • September 16, 2020
    ...Ear Infirmary , 27 N.J. 29, 141 A.2d 276 (1958) ; State v. One 1990 Honda Accord , 154 N.J. 373, 712 A.2d 1148 (1998) ; State v. Smith , 85 N.J. 193, 426 A.2d 38 (1981). In England, no common law cause of action for wrongful death existed. Baker v. Bolton , 170 Eng. Rep. 1033 (Nisi Prius 18......
  • State v. Oliver
    • United States
    • Superior Court of New Jersey
    • November 8, 1996
    ...372 A.2d 386 (Cty.Ct.1977), aff'd, 169 N.J.Super. 98, 404 A.2d 331, certif. granted, 82 N.J. 292, 412 A.2d 798, rev'd on other grounds, 85 N.J. 193, 426 A.2d 38 (1981). A trial court does not have the right to do whatever it pleases. The court's discretion in sentencing is limited by the se......
  • State v. One 1990 Honda Accord, New Jersey Registration No. HRB20D, VIN No. 1HGCB7659LA063293 and Four Hundred and Twenty Dollars
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
    • July 15, 1998
    ...the English common law as of 1776, except as changed by statute or the State Constitution, became part of New Jersey law. State v. Smith, 85 N.J. 193, 199, 426 A.2d 38 (1981); Collopy v. Newark Eye & Ear Infirmary, 27 N.J. 29, 43, 141 A.2d 276 Other states embraced English common law wi......
  • People v. Liberta
    • United States
    • New York Court of Appeals
    • December 20, 1984
    ...he should seek relief in the courts governing domestic relations, not in "violent or forceful self-help" (State v. Smith, 85 N.J. 193, 206, 426 A.2d The other traditional justifications for the marital exemption were the common-law doctrines that a woman was the property of her hu......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
24 cases
  • Nicole B. v. Sch. Dist. of Phila., No. 16 EAP 2019
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • September 16, 2020
    ...& Ear Infirmary , 27 N.J. 29, 141 A.2d 276 (1958) ; State v. One 1990 Honda Accord , 154 N.J. 373, 712 A.2d 1148 (1998) ; State v. Smith , 85 N.J. 193, 426 A.2d 38 (1981). In England, no common law cause of action for wrongful death existed. Baker v. Bolton , 170 Eng. Rep. 1033 (Nisi Prius ......
  • State v. Oliver
    • United States
    • Superior Court of New Jersey
    • November 8, 1996
    ...372 A.2d 386 (Cty.Ct.1977), aff'd, 169 N.J.Super. 98, 404 A.2d 331, certif. granted, 82 N.J. 292, 412 A.2d 798, rev'd on other grounds, 85 N.J. 193, 426 A.2d 38 (1981). A trial court does not have the right to do whatever it pleases. The court's discretion in sentencing is limited by the se......
  • State v. One 1990 Honda Accord, New Jersey Registration No. HRB20D, VIN No. 1HGCB7659LA063293 and Four Hundred and Twenty Dollars
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
    • July 15, 1998
    ...the English common law as of 1776, except as changed by statute or the State Constitution, became part of New Jersey law. State v. Smith, 85 N.J. 193, 199, 426 A.2d 38 (1981); Collopy v. Newark Eye & Ear Infirmary, 27 N.J. 29, 43, 141 A.2d 276 Other states embraced English common law with v......
  • People v. Liberta
    • United States
    • New York Court of Appeals
    • December 20, 1984
    ...intercourse, he should seek relief in the courts governing domestic relations, not in "violent or forceful self-help" (State v. Smith, 85 N.J. 193, 206, 426 A.2d The other traditional justifications for the marital exemption were the common-law doctrines that a woman was the property of her......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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