Criminal Law Blog

Wondering whether injuries amount to “significant bodily injury” for felony assault? Read this case!

Belt v. United States (decided December 8, 2016).
Players: Associate Judges Blackburne-Rigsby and Beckwith, Senior Judge Belson.  Opinion by Judge Blackburne-Rigsby.  Daria J. Zane for C.B.  Trial Judge: Franklin Burgess.  
Summary:  This case stems from a fight between C.B. and two of her former friends, Cynthia Spenard and James Tolbert III.  At trial, C.B. was accused of assaulting Mr. Tolbert with a meat cleaver, causing an inch-long laceration to his forehead and an inch-and-a-half long laceration to his shoulder.  The main issue on appeal was whether these injuries amount to “significant bodily injury,” as required for a felony assault conviction.  In this opinion, the Court seeks to clarify the District's case law on what constitutes sufficient evidence to sustain a felony assault conviction.  Here are some highlights:

  • The original draft of the bill creating the offense of felony assault used the language “bodily injury.”  In response to comments from PDS, the Council adopted the term “significant bodily injury,” to incorporate injuries “more serious than mere bodily injury such as slapping but less serious than serious bodily injury.”  Slip op. at 8 (insertion and quotations omitted).  The committee report on the bill states that the Council’s intent was for the crime of felony assault to cover assaults that result in “significant (but not grave) bodily injury.”  Id. at 9 (quotation omitted). 
  • “[T]here are two independent bases for a fact finder to conclude that a victim has suffered a significant bodily injury: (1) where the injury requires medical treatment to prevent ‘long-term physical damage’ or ‘potentially permanent injuries’; or (2) where the injury requires medical treatment to abate the victim’s ‘severe pain.’”  Id. at 11.
  • The relevant fact is not whether the individual receives medical attention “but whether medical treatment beyond what can administer himself is immediately required to prevent ‘long-term physical damage, possible disability, disfigurement, or severe pain.'” Id.  at 12 (quoting Teneyck v. United States, 112 A.3d 906, 909 (D.C. 2015) (emphasis added in Belt). 
  • “[W]e can summarize the definition of ‘significant bodily injury’ as follows: to qualify as ‘significant bodily injury,’ the nature of the injury itself must, in the ordinary course of events, give rise to a ‘practical need’ for immediate medical attention beyond what a layperson can personally administer, either to prevent long-term physical damage or to abate severe pain.”  Id.
  • When the medical treatment prescribed or administered, such as stitches, is something that can be performed only by trained medical professionals, the fact finder may be able to infer from the course of treatment itself that immediate medical attention was “required,” thereby establishing that the injury constituted a “significant bodily injury.”  Id. 
  • The government is not required to prove through medical or other expert witnesses that the immediate medical attention that the victim received was actually necessary. 
  • Evidence of the victim’s injuries and the victim’s reactions to them may allow the fact finder to infer based on “common sense” and every day experience that the victim was in “severe” pain.
  • Applying these principles to Mr. Tolbert’s injuries, the Court reasoned that he sustained significant bodily injury: Mr. Tolbert testified that he felt disoriented and had a ‘little black out spell’ from the strike; he experienced significant blood loss; and after being taken to the hospital immediately after the incident, he received stitches for his forehead wound and “strips” for his shoulder wound.  NG