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“No horseplay around the campfire!” Your momma told you. “Someone will get hurt!”

In a series of unfortunate events at a Minnesota bonfire, someone did get hurt after falling into the fire, which triggered a first-degree assault[1] conviction in State v. Dorn.

Dorn was partaking in a popular Minnesota pastime – attending a large outdoor bonfire, including consumption of alcoholic beverages, sometimes in copious amounts. Hanging out with friends, chatting, and staying near the fire. Someone near Dorn attempted to joke that Dorn looked like a drug dealer. Dorn overheard this and pushed him with two hands. He eventually tripped and fell into the fire. He stayed there for several seconds until someone pulled him out. As a result, he sustained third-degree burns and needed skin grafting on his arm and hand. The result for Dorn? A first-degree assault charge, because her act resulted in great bodily harm.

After the district court convicted her of first-degree assault, Dorn appealed. Last week, the court of appeals upheld her conviction; and held that first-degree assault may occur when a person “commits a volitional act in a hostile manner, even where the degree of force is as slight as a push, so long as that act is a substantial cause of the bodily harm.” The court noted “this leads to a harsh result where Dorn engaged in rather de minimis behavior. . .that lead to the infliction of harm.”

In its analysis, the court of appeals focused squarely on the result of the harm and not the act itself. In doing so, the court contrasted assault-harm with assault-fear.[2] Assault-fear is a specific-intent crime, which requires someone to intentionally cause a specific result – fear of harm. While assault-harm is a general intent crime, which only requires someone to engage in the prohibited conduct – cause harm.

Dorn’s appellate counsel argued that this approach transforms assault-fear into a strict liability statute. In response, the court cited State v. Fleck reasoning that “some form of mens rea—the intent to commit a battery—is required for a conviction of assault-harm, even though it is a general-intent offense.” The slightest degree of force, as long as it is hostile, is enough to commit a battery or an assault. A friendly slap on the back that results in someone falling into a fire does not include a hostile act. But pushing someone because you are mad at them, such as in Dorn, is enough of a hostile act to constitute assault in the eyes of the law.

The court of appeals also noted that it is an “error-correcting court [and it] lacks authority to change established supreme court precedent.”[3] By noting this, the court of appeals may be signaling to Dorn that she should petition the supreme court for review. Dorn will surely try.

Robert H. Ambrose is a criminal defense attorney in Minnesota. He represents clients charged with crimes such as Assault, Terroristic Threats, and other violent crimes. The National Trial Lawyers Organization named him a Top 40 Under 40 Trial Lawyer. For a free consultation please call 651-800-4842 or email: ambroselegal@icloud.com. St. Paul MN Criminal Defense Attorney; Minneapolis Criminal Defense Lawyer; and 5th Degree Assault MN.

[1] First Degree Assault occurs when someone assaults another resulting in great bodily harm. It is a felony offense carrying a maximum penalty of twenty years in prison. Minn. Stat. §609.221, subd. 1.

[2] We previously blogged about assault-fear here; and how an assault may occur without ever physically touching someone.

[3] Citing State v. Adkins, 706 N.W.2d 59, 63 (Minn. App. 2005).

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