On Thursday August 13th, New York Jets starting quarterback Geno Smith had his jaw surgically repaired with metal plates. He will miss 6-10 weeks recovering from this surgery, leaving the Jets with Ryan Fitzpatrick to start in Geno’s absence.[i]
If you have not heard by now, Smith suffered two fractures in his jaw when he was punched in the Jets locker room on Tuesday by reserve linebacker Ikemefuna Enemkpali. Jets Head Coach Todd Bowles told the media immediately following the incident that Geno was “cold-cocked, sucker-punched, whatever you want to call it,” and called the incident “childish.”
The specific facts regarding the incident have not been officially confirmed yet, however, as he usually does, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter dug up the details. According to Schefter, Geno accepted a $600 plane ticket from Enemkpali to appear at the reserve linebacker’s football camp in Pflugerville, Texas, on July 11. However, Smith did not show up for the camp, because someone close to him was killed in a motorcycle crash in Miami, sources said.
After Smith did not attend, Enemkpali demanded that Smith refund him the $600 he allegedly used to purchase the plane ticket. Smith told Enemkpali he would reimburse him the money, but he had not as of Tuesday morning. Enemkpali confronted Smith about the money, and the confrontation ended with Smith getting punched in the jaw. Scott Hanson and the NFL Network crew also reported that Smith walked up to Enemkpali and was waiving his finger in his face before Enemkpali punched him.
Now everybody knows that football is a contact sport and teammates occasionally get into scuffles from time to time, but starting quarterbacks don’t usually get beat by teammates so bad that they are forced to miss 6-10 weeks of action. More importantly, this incident happened inside the locker room and not on field, which makes it a different matter all together. That might be one reason why the Jets immediately fired (or released) Enemkpali (he was quickly rehired or picked up by Rex Ryan and the Buffalo Bills). On top of being released by the Jets, Enemkpali has the potential for further suspensions, fines, and even legal charges being brought forth against him for his actions inside the locker room.
In New Jersey, criminal assault occurs when a person physically injures another person without legal justification.[ii] Assault can be charged as either a simple assault or an aggravated assault. The different levels of assault depend on several factors, including the seriousness of a victims’ injury, whether the defendant used a weapon or object to cause an injury, and so forth. It is unlikely that the more severe of the two crimes, aggravated assault, would be charged because a broken or fractured jaw would likely not be viewed as a serious enough injury to satisfy the serious bodily injury element that the statute was intending to cover. If Enemkpali were to be charged with anything in New Jersey it would likely be simple assault.
According to New Jersey statute, there are three ways to commit simple assault. First, a person commits simple assault by either attempting to or actually (purposefully, knowingly, or recklessly) causing someone else to suffer a bodily injury. Second, simple assault can occur if a person negligently injures someone else by using a deadly weapon. Third, it is also simple assault to put another person in fear of imminent serious bodily injury.
Using the facts provided by Schefter and applying the New Jersey law Enemkpali would clearly satisfy the first option. Punching Geno Smith in the jaw and causing him to undergo surgery caused him to suffer a bodily injury.
If it was in fact a sucker punch and not a mutual battle, then Enemkpali purposely, knowingly, and recklessly caused Smith bodily injury. However, Enemkpali might have another way out. The offense of simple assault generally applies if the crime you are accused of doesn’t fit into one of the more serious assault offenses. The New Jersey statute states that simple assault is a disorderly persons offense and can carry up to a potential 6 months in jail. Unless the assault was committed in a fight or scuffle entered into by mutual consent, in which case it is only a petty disorderly persons offense and carries up to 30 days in jail. As such, if Smith was sufficiently provoking Enemkpali beforehand and his finger in Enemkpali’s face started the scuffle then Enemkpali could only get the lesser offense.
Furthermore, in addition to assault charges Smith could also bring forth a civil claim for battery. In New Jersey a battery is considered the unwanted touching of another. The perpetrator must have acted intentionally, contacted the victim without consent, and caused damages. Although they are extremely similar, assault and battery are not the same. A simple assault only requires the victim be in imminent apprehension of immediate battery (contact). While a battery requires that the victim or something he is holding or wearing be contacted. It is a fact that Smith was contacted with a punch in the face that required surgery and cannot play for 6-10 weeks. The additional reported facts provided by Schefter show that Enemkpali intentionally punched Smith. If he was sucker punched it would only help prove that he was battered by helping to satisfy “the without consent” element. Therefore, all the elements of battery exist and Enemkpali could face those charges as well.
When trying to compare this to previous instances in the NFL there really is none like it. It is very rare to see these exact facts.
A case with similar facts as the Geno Smith situation did occur at the collegiate level. In 2013 former Washington State defensive lineman Emmitt Su’a-Kalio broke the jaw of a freshman quarterback in an alleged fight in the locker room, causing the quarterback to undergo surgery. Emmitt was charged with second-degree assault and ultimately pleaded down and only received community service.
Putting the law aside, based on the circumstances surrounding this incident it is unlikely that Enemkpali will face charges in New Jersey for assault or battery. It is highly unlikely that Geno Smith would press charges and give this embarrassing interaction further attention by the media. It is also highly unlikely that the State of New Jersey or even New York bring criminal charges against Enemkpali. The Jets handled the situation very quickly, and all parties are trying to move on and put it in the rear view mirror. However, the NFL did confirm on Wednesday that it is reviewing the incident, and the linebacker could face penalties under the league’s personal conduct policy.
[i] This is a guest contribution by Zakari A. Kurtz, Esq. Zak has functioned in many different legal and business positions in the sports industry, and has experience playing, coaching and refereeing. He received his undergraduate degree from Roanoke College and his J.D. from Michigan State University. He is currently finishing a Master’s Degree in Sports Business Management from Columbia University. Zak currently works with large, small and start-up businesses, practicing sports & entertainment law, intellectual property, and other general practice areas at The Law Offices of Zakari A. Kurtz. Zak is licensed to practice law in New York.