Anthony Sculimbrene, Esq.
State of New Jersey v. Montalvo
Decided: June 8, 2017
The right of self-defense in a person’s home is expanded.
The Defendant and his downstairs neighbor get in a fight. The fight starts when the neighbor knocks on his ceiling (the Defendant’s floor) in an effort to get the Defendant to quiet down. The Defendant goes downstairs to confront his neighbor, who refuses to answer the door. The Defendant smashes an outdoor table belonging to the neighbor. The neighbor then comes upstairs to confront the Defendant. The Defendant arms himself to answer the door with a machete he uses for work in his roofing job. The Defendant is worried the neighbor is armed with a gun. He is also worried about his pregnant wife. The Defendant opens the door with his machete in hand. He claims he never shows the machete while the neighbor claims the Defendant points it at him. The confrontation ends when the neighbor threatens to call the police. The next day the Defendant is arrested and charged with three crimes: one for destroying the table and two others for possessing the machete.
At trial a jury acquits him of one weapons charge. On the second, they request information about whether possessing the machete in self-defense counts as a defense. The trial court answers with a quote from another case which indicates that under this particular weapons charge a person may spontaneously arm themselves only in response to an imminent threat. The jury convicts the Defendant within minutes of receiving this instruction. On appeal the New Jersey Supreme Court vacates the conviction.
Notes for Knife Owners
This case only directly affects people in New Jersey. First, New Jersey has very restrictive knife laws. Second, the ability to arm one’s self in self-defense, under some weapons charges, was very limited. In this case, the New Jersey Supreme Court expanded the right of self-defense in a person’s home.
- Point 1: The Second Amendment matters in every state and can impact state laws on possession of weapons offenses and self-defense law.
- Point 2: In New Jersey, the right to defend one’s self at home is broader than anywhere else, including the right to defend yourself with a knife that may be illegal to carry on your person in non-self-defense situations.
Notes for Attorneys
This case is unusual because it represents a rare instance in which a bad jury instruction constitutes plain error. It also represents the impact that Heller v. District of Columbia, 554 US 570 (2008) and McDonald v. City of Chicago, 561 US 742 (2010) are having on state law. Always refer to these cases when self-defense is an issue. Scalia’s majority opinion in Heller has exceptionally strong and broad language and this case shows that state courts will heed that language even when it trumps settled state law.
- Point 1: Always object at trial on legal issues and make a record for the basis of your objection – The Defendant was lucky that the court found plain error here.
- Point 2: Always cite Heller and MacDonald in self-defense cases and be prepared to argue their impact on state law. This is a good case to use to show that pre-Heller case law and jury instructions should be changed or amended to reflect the new reality in 2nd Amendment cases.
- Point 3: If you are in New Jersey, you will likely get a new model jury instruction in possession of weapon cases and self-defense.
- Point 4: If you are in New Jersey, the spontaenousness requirement for self-defense is probably going to go away when a person is defending themselves in their home. The court looked disfavorably on this requirement, basically saying it was antithetical to the concept of self-defense.