Offensive assault definition--What distinguishes caress from slap in the face?
By Bill Williamson, Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, March 3, 2000

Here's an interesting little scenario for you to consider. Let's suppose one of Maine's esteemed Supreme Court justices is out for a stroll one sunny Sunday afternoon, and he is in such a fine humor that he bursts into song.

Unfortunately, a Frank Sinatra he is not, and a large and brutish fellow, about twice our judge's size, in fact, decides he wants the tone-deaf jurist to stop singing and informs him of this decision. Unaccustomed to receiving orders from anybody, let alone some goon who doesn't appreciate fine music, our high-court judge suggests a warm place where the lout can go.

At this point in our story, the large and brutish fellow reaches out and grabs his honor by the face with a ham-sized hand and fingers resembling large sausages, leaving unsightly and painful bruises on the judicial countenance. Needless to say, the offensive singing ceases at once, and the angry judge enlists the aid of law enforcement to arrest his assailant.

What we have here, of course, is a clear-cut case of assault. In case you've forgotten it, the legal definition of simple assault in Maine is any unwanted physical contact, even if no physical injury is suffered. And when the unwanted physical contact results in bruising or worse, the criminal ante is upped accordingly.

It doesn't matter that our judge had the sort of voice that would break windows. It doesn't matter that his singing terrified the large lout's three little children. And it doesn't matter that the judge merely sneered when ordered to shut up. The grabbing of his face with the subsequent appearance of bruises was an assault, and his attacker was tried, convicted and whisked off to the county jail. So there.

This, of course, is a hypothetical story, but we can be sure that if it were to take place, the actual ending would be the same as our fictitious one, right? You can't go around face-grabbing with impunity, especially if the face is located on a supreme court judge.

And yet, despite the fact that assaults are illegal and punishable, Maine's Supreme Court last week threw out the 1998 assault conviction of a Portland man who had grabbed and bruised his 10-year-old son's shoulder and face, first to make him stop talking, and then to make him stop exaggerating about a movie they'd seen the night before.

Despite the grabbing and bruising, clearly assaultive behavior, the high court decided that it "met the legal definition of justifiable physical force by a parent to prevent or punish misconduct." I beg your pardon? Is the court saying that children can't be protected from assaults by their parents, simply because they are their parents?

It sure sounds that way. If parental treatment of a child meets the legal definition of an assault, how the devil can any court, let alone a supreme one, come up with a ruling that gives parents carte blanche to commit assault on their kids? Such a ruling is ludicrous, the sort of nonsense you'd expect to find in Alice's Wonderland.

Everything about this case boggles the mind. What was the misconduct that required prevention or punishment? This was a child who had committed the unpardonable sins of excess talking and exaggeration. Are these the sorts of behaviors the court feels should warrant physical assaults to "prevent or punish?

If you are a parent, can you understand how the boy's behavior could have evoked the kind of parental rage that resulted in grabbing with sufficient force to bruise the child's body? The Maine Supreme Court apparently could.

In its decision, the court said that the physical harm he (the parent) caused was transient and temporary and grabbing (the child) hard to prevent him from talking was not "grossly deviant" from what a reasonable parent might do in the same circumstance. Really?

In our society's long and uneasy journey through its evolutionary development from Roman and English common law, we have made great strides in the direction of enlightened rules of behavior. In the days of the Roman Republic, for example, fathers had life and death authority over their children.

A thousand years ago, parents could sell their children, mutilate them to be displayed for income in freak shows, or work them to death as virtual slaves. Beating children was not only common, but expected.

Today, most of us, with the exception of supreme court judges, believe our responsibility as parents is to use education and instruction to teach our young ones acceptable rules of behavior, not physical punishment. Using physical force on children only teaches one thing: that superior power gives people the right to use physical force to get their way and to punish those who anger them.

Earlier this week, a 6-year-old first-grader in Michigan demonstrated how well he'd learned this lesson when he brought a gun to school and killed a classmate with it, a little girl who had reportedly angered him the day before.

That's a pretty long leap from our Supreme Court's ruling on permissible parental methods of control, you say? Maybe not as long as you might think, I say.

Bill Williamson, of Kennebunkport, is a former state government worker.

2000 Blethen Maine Newspapers, Inc.

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