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Should IK Enemkpali Be Charged with a Crime?

After injuring Geno Smith, can and should IK Enemkpali be held legally responsible?

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Before we set IK Enemkpali aside from the team for good, I want to address one more topic as it relates to him. I want to discuss whether or not Enemkpali could, and should, be charged with a crime. Obviously, we don't know the full story, so without all the facts it's impossible to say one way or the other definitively. But we can make some educated guesses based on what we do know, which will be enough for these purposes. I will also do my best to avoid dense legal citations and technical definitions (lawyers have very precise definitions of words like "purposefully" and "knowingly" that just aren't necessary under these facts, for these purposes).

The Facts

As I mentioned, the facts are a little hazy. Here is what appears to have happened. Geno Smith was scheduled to go to Enemkpali's football camp on July 11, for which Enemkpali paid for a flight and car on Smith's behalf. The total amount came to $600. Shortly before the event, Smith's brother's best friend was killed, so Smith cancelled his appearance in order to go to the funeral.

Around this point, Smith told Enemkpali that he would pay him back for the $600, but apparently forgot to do so. Today, Enemkpali confronted Smith and demanded his money back. Some reports say Smith was the one that initiated the conversation. Smith's offer to pay the money back was not quick enough for Enemkpali. After an argument, in which Smith reportedly stuck his finger in Enemkpali's face, he either turned around or sat down at his locker. Enemkpali then punched Smith in the jaw, fracturing it in two places. Several accounts have indicated it was a sucker punch, in that Smith didn't see it coming.

Again, the facts are not clear, and it is possible we are missing something big. But this gives us a good basis with which to begin.

Criminal Liability

Let's first distinguish between two legal principles that often get confused. The first is battery, and the second is assault.

Battery is generally defined as an intentional, nonconsensual act that causes a harmful or offensive contact with the person of another. In contrast, assault is generally defined as an intentional act by one person that creates an apprehension in another of an imminent harmful or offensive contact. The key difference there is the actual contact with the individual. If you pull out a baseball bat and raise it over the person's head, thereby threatening to hit them with it, and assuming they see what you're doing, you could be charged with assault. If you actually hit the person with the bat, it would be battery.

Now, New Jersey has modified those rules I mentioned above to create specific criminal offenses. Under N.J.S.A. 2C-12-1, there is a distinction between simple assault and aggravated assault. Criminal battery is folded into aggravated assault. I'll spare you the formal citations to give you the paraphrased versions.

While there are several classifications/definitions of simple assault, the crime can be met as an attempt to cause or purposely, knowingly, or recklessly causing bodily injury to another. While New Jersey has a separate distinction for the apprehension element listed above in the general definition, simple assault can also be met by mere attempt, which has happened here, since Enemkpali's act was an attempt to cause bodily injury.

Simple assault constitutes a disorderly person's offense, which is a misdemeanor. If Enemkpali had punched Smith as part of a fight by mutual consent, which the facts here do not suggest it was, since the reports are that Smith was sucker punched, it would be a petty disorderly person's offense.

Under New Jersey's definition of simple assault, Enemkpali could be found guilty. The punishment for a disorderly person's offense is a maximum of six months in prison and up to a $1,000 fine, along with potential community service and probation.

Similar to simple assault, aggravated assault has many classifications/definitions, but there is one that is particularly relevant. A person is guilty of aggravated assault if he attempts to cause serious bodily injury to another, or causes such injury purposely or knowingly. In essence, it's a combination of the definitions of assault and battery I listed above. Aggravated assault in New Jersey is, at its core, either a more serious type of assault or criminal battery as defined above.

Under New Jersey's definition of aggravated assault, Enemkpali could also be found guilty, although a prosecutor might allow Enemkpali to "plead down" to the simple assault, or may choose to prosecute just for the greater crime of aggravated assault. Due to the nature of Smith's injuries, its location, and Enemkpali's sheer strength, he could be convicted of aggravated assault under a criminal battery theory. Again, I'll spare you of a detailed discussion on what Enemkpali's legal intent was, since common sense is enough to guide us in this case.

In New Jersey, aggravated assault of this type is a felony of the second degree (there are also third and fourth degrees for different, and lesser, types of violations). Second degree aggravated assault comes with a punishment of five-to-ten years imprisonment and/or up to $150,000 in fines.

As Todd Bowles said today, the team would leave it up to Smith to ask for charges to be filed against Enemkpali, although the prosecutor would make the final determination. If the prosecutor were to press simply assault charges, the statute of limitations would give him one year to file, and if he were to press aggravated assault charges, he would have five years.

Civil Liability

If Smith wanted to seek damages for his injury, he could also pursue civil charges against Enemkpali for assault and battery. This is where the general definitions I listed above come into play. Again:

Battery is generally defined as an intentional, nonconsensual act that causes a harmful or offensive contact with the person of another. In contrast, assault is generally defined as an intentional act by one person that creates an apprehension in another of an imminent harmful or offensive contact. The key difference there is the actual contact with the individual. If you pull out a baseball bat and raise it over the person's head, and assuming they see what you're doing, you could be charged with assault. If you actually hit the person with the bat, it would be battery.

The facts here indicate that a claim of assault probably would not do much for Smith, since it doesn't appear that he ever saw Enemkpali raise his fist or swing at him. If he didn't see the intentional act, he cannot be in apprehension of it.

However, a claim of battery is far more clear cut. Punching someone in the jaw, absent self-defense, is a straightforward violation of the definition given above. Again, I'll spare you the legal citations of previous cases, because common sense is enough here.

I would also like to throw in a little bit about self-defense. This is called an affirmative defense, because if Enemkpali can prove it by a preponderance of the evidence (think of it as more probable than not), it serves as a bar on both criminal and civil liability. However, self-defense requires proof that the individual was, you know, defending themselves. If all Enemkpali can prove is that Smith stuck a finger in his face and then turned away, it's impossible to prove that defense, which is why I haven't spent much time discussing it.

If Smith decided he wanted to pursue this, the statute of limitations in New Jersey would give him two years to file a claim. As for damages, Smith can seek reimbursement for any medical expenses and lost pay (which I'll avoid going into any depth about, since it requires a detailed analysis of his contract with the team). Furthermore, New Jersey allows punitive damages, which seek to actually punish the defendant. Under the New Jersey Punitive Damages Act, assuming Smith won actual damages for expenses/lost pay, he could get up to five times the actual damages (known as compensatory) or $350,000, whichever is greater.

Conclusion

Obviously, it's unlikely that anything will come of this other than Enemkpali's earlier release from the team. Nobody, not the team nor Smith has an interest in dragging this out. It's better for everyone that it simply goes away. It's already the most expensive $600 of Enemkpali's life, and nobody needs the publicity of dragging this out and hauling witnesses into court. With that said, it's still good to bear in mind.

DISCLAIMER: This article does not constitute legal advice, and is merely a general guide to understanding the law. I'm a recent graduate of Washington & Lee University School of Law, and currently work as an associate at Marks & Klein, LLP, a New Jersey law firm. Although my area of focus is commercial litigation, I have experience in the topics discussed above through my education and work history.