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Gang Assault and Mens Rea of Accomplices

New York’s gang assault statute applies when a person who intends to cause physical injury causes that person or a third person serious physical injury and is aided by two or more other persons actually present.

The issue is: whether two or more persons who provide aid must also share the criminal intent or mens rea of the defendant.

The Court of Appeals held that the co-defendants do not have to have the same intent or mens rea as the defendant, but they must simply be present and render aid to the defendant.

Here the New York Court of Appeals decided to separate cases: people v. Matthew Sanchez and People v. Larry Mynin.

Facts of People v. Sanchez: In a second Avenue Manhattan bar the defendant was present with two codefendants. He left the bar and it was alleged that he took the keys from the owner. The owner along with a friend/ police officer pursued defendant and company outside the bar where an altercation ensued.
Defendant clinched a police officer in the face while the two codefendants attacked the bar owner. The police arrived and arrested defendant and one codefendant while the other codefendant was arrested later. All three were eventually indicted for gang assault in the first degree and attempted gang assault in the first degree.

The case went to trial and there was considerable debate over the instructions to the jury on the gang assault charge.

The jury acquitted all three defendants of first-degree gang assault but convicted Sanchez and one codefendant of gang assault and second-degree and one codefendant of misdemeanor assault in the third degree.
In People v. Mynin the defendant along with three other men participated in a drug deal gone bad where another man was fatally shot. The case proceeded to trial and all codefendants were acquitted and the defendant was convicted of one count of gang assault and second-degree.

The Court of Appeals began its analysis of the comparison of gang assault in the first degree and gang assault and second-degree: both crimes require that defendant be aided by two or more persons actually present. The phrase – aided by two or more persons actually present- is taken from the current robbery statute.

The robbery statute was amended by the legislature and the word “accomplice” was replaced with the phrase “another person”. Some courts interpret this to mean that a codefendant need not share the specific intent and mental culpability required for accomplice liability.

In other words a defendant can be found guilty of the crime of robbery in the second degree even when a codefendant is acquitted.

The Court of Appeals found that the interpretation of the robbery statute was applicable to the similarly worded gang assault statute.

The statute defining gang assault speaks only to the intent of the defendant and not to his codefendants. No particular mental state is expressly required of those who comprise the gang. They must simply be present and render aid to the defendant. The Legislature did not provide that they must share defendants intend cause physical injury.

The Court of Appeals held that a defendant can be found guilty of gang assault if he acts with the requisite mens rea even if one or more of the codefendants who aid him do not share his intent to cause physical harm. The Court of Appeals stated that we do not hold that no Men’s Rea is required of a codefendant.

Court Of Appeals affirmed the convictions in both cases.