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Phrase in federal assault statute, 18 U.S.C. § 113(a)(3), stating "without just cause or excuse," is an affirmative defense, rather than an element of the offense

In United States v. Taylor, No. 11-2875 (3d Cir. July 25, 2012), the Third Circuit was presented with the question of whether, by including the phrase "without just cause or excuse," in provision of the federal assault statute covering assault with a dangerous weapon, 18 U.S.C. § 113(a)(3), Congress intended to convert justification from an affirmative defense into an element of the offense for purposes of the statute. The Court ultimately held that the existence of just cause or excuse is an affirmative defense to a § 113(a)(3) violation which the defendant must prove by a preponderance of the evidence.

18 U.S.C. § 113(a)(3) provides, in pertinent part:

Whoever, within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of
the United States, is guilty of an assault shall be punished as
follows ... Assault with a dangerous weapon, with intent to do bodily
harm, and without just cause or excuse, by a fine under this title
or imprisonment for not more than ten years, or both.

Section 113(a) lists seven types of assault, but the phrase "without just cause or excuse" is only found in subsection (a)(3), assault with a dangerous weapon.

Although the Court found a dearth of case law on this point, it concluded that the existing case law, including two on-point Supreme Court cases, supported its conclusion that the statute's "without just cause or excuse" language sets forth an affirmative defense. The Court noted that the phrase "without just cause or excuse" appears in a distinct clause of the statute, set off by commas from the rest of the statute and sets forth an exception to the offense. Additionally, the existence of just cause or excuse does not disprove the elements of assault under § 113(a)(3), but provides a justification to the offense which the defendant bears the burden of proving. Accordingly, the Court concluded that the district court did not err in failing to charge "without just cause or excuse" as an element of the offense.


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