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Will Smith slaps Chris Rock onstage

Yesterday, during the Oscars award show in Los Angeles, comedian Chris Rock – the emcee/host of the event – made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair loss. Will Smith, her husband and a famous actor, promptly walked onstage and smacked Rock hard in the face. Smith then sat back in his seat and cursed repeatedly at Rock. Obviously, this happened in California, so California state law applies to Smith’s slap. Apparently, Chris Rock has decided not to file any criminal charges or make any police reports in connection with the event, which was obviously witnessed by millions of people on live television.

This interesting and unexpected exchange provides a fun example to consider New York criminal law: What charges, if any, might have applied to this slap had it happened onstage in New York?

The most significant plausible charge here would be the Class A misdemeanor or Assault in the Third Degree (Penal Law Section 120.00). That statute makes it a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail to intentionally cause physical injury to another person. Here, however, it does not seem that Chris Rock suffered any physical injury significant enough to justify the charge. Indeed, although he was obviously dazed and it appeared to be a fairly hard slap, Rock carried on with his emcee duties and even made a few quips about what had happened. A physical injury, as defined by New York law, is supposed to be “substantial pain” and/or “impairment of a bodily function.” Surely Rock felt some pain from the slap, but it appears to have been too temporary to have really justified an assault charge under New York law.

Oftentimes, in situations like this, where the strike is forceful but the injury is fleeting, the defendant in New York gets charged with Attempted Assault in the Third Degree (Penal Law Sections 110/1120.00), which applies where the person tried to hurt the victim but did not actually succeed. That is a class B misdemeanor that could apply to what Smith did. Smith might argue that because he used an open hand, he only meant to send a message but did not intend to actually injure Rock. A closed fist punch, on the other hand, would have made such an argument more difficult.

Certainly, this act would be sufficient for a charge of Harassment in the Second Degree, in violation of Penal Law Section 240.26. That charge applies to any unwanted or offensive touching of another person. A conviction for this offense does not technically give someone a criminal record, as it is a violation, and violations are not classified as crimes under New York state law. However, this is a potential maximum penalty of 15 days in jail for this offense. It seems plain that if Smith had smacked Rock in New York and were arrested and charged with this offense, it would be virtually impossible to defend against a conviction. That being said, people without criminal records charged with this offense are typically able to resolve these cases without jail; counseling and/or community service and/or anger management are more typical punishments.

If you or a loved one are a Hollywood actor charged with smacking another celebrity onstage before a live television audience, you should strongly consider contacting Matthew Galluzzo, an experienced criminal defense attorney and former Manhattan prosecutor.


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