Massachusetts Criminal Assault & Battery Penalties Sought By State Nurses Association

Here’s an interesting development occurring at the intersection of criminal law and the healthcare field: The state’s largest nursing association is organizing support and lobbying for a bill giving nurses special protections from assault and battery by patients under their care.

The legislation would put defendants found guilty of assault and battery against registered nurses while they are providing health care, in jail for a minimum of 90 days and up to a maximum of 2-1/2 years. Currently, Massachusetts law allows sentences up to 2 1/2 years, but no minimum sentence for simple assault and battery convictions (against a nurse or anyone). In support of this legislation, the Massachusetts Nurses Association cited a survey it conducted five years ago, which concluded that one in every two nurses was assaulted at work during a two-year period in Massachusetts. The association also claims that nurses are assaulted as frequently as police officers and prison guards.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Michael O. Moore, D-Millbury, was one of more than 200 proposed new laws covering a wide variety of criminal offenses, all of which were heard in a single day yesterday by the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. Two Massachusetts District Attorneys, Worcester County District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr., and Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, are both backing the bill for minimum mandatory sentences for assaults on nurses.

According to Massachusetts Nursing Association spokesman David Schildmeier, assaults on nurses are frequently not prosecuted, and in cases where they are prosecuted, judges have complete discretion over whether a jail sentence is imposed. The association finds judicial discretion a ‘problem.’ I don’t. I’ve blogged previously and spoken publicly more than once about the destructive effects of mandatory minimum sentencing – whether for assault and battery, rape and sexual offenses, drug offenses or operating under the influence of alcohol. To impose a mandatory minimum jail term of 90 days for anyone found guilty of assaulting a nurse in the course of his or her care is extremely unwise from several standpoints: Judicial administration, corrections, and simple justice. Nurses perform a valuable service throughout society, but not more so than dozens of other hard-working professionals who have to interact with the public every day. Further, I think it safe to say that the vast majority of patients who might assault a nurse would likely be ill, elderly, of unstable or unsound mind, or under the effects of medication. To mandatorily sentence such people to 90 days in jail, with absolutely no judicial discretion whatsoever, is plainly foolish, not to mention inequitable.

The nurses association is also working to change hospital policies to reduce tolerance of nurse abuse and attacks on nurses, and to end past practices that discouraged nurses from seeking criminal complaints in cases where they have been assaulted by patients, visitors and families of patients. I support that effort entirely.

According to the association, while some medical institutions have viewed violence against nurses in the past as being “part of the job,” the association has been educating nurses that they should prosecute assaults. “It is not part of the job to get punched,” he said. As a Boston criminal defense attorney, I thoroughly agree with this opinion, and I would encourage any nurse who feels that he or she has been assaulted to bring charges against the person who committed such an assault. But to enact special penalties for assaulting registered nurses, then tie judges’ hands and mandatorily sentence anyone who has even slightly assaulted a nurse to a minimum of 90 days in jail, is unwise, counterproductive judicial and corrections policy, and inequitable.

Nurses deserve respect and equal access to the criminal courts. They have that now.