On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Passaic County.
Gaulkin, Bilder and R. S. Cohen. The opinion of the court was delivered by R. S. Cohen, J.A.D.
[232 NJSuper Page 301] The question is whether a surprise purse snatching not accompanied by injury, threats, struggle or attempted resistance is a robbery (N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1) or a theft from the person (N.J.S.A. 2C:20-3). Defendant was convicted of robbery. He argues on appeal that he was at most guilty of theft, a lesser offense which was also submitted to the jury. In addition, he argues that the court's instructions were insufficient to enable the jury to distinguish adequately between the two offenses.
The victim was Edythe Williams. Her account was the only description of the event the jury heard. She testified she was carrying a "clutch" purse, one designed to be carried under the arm and having no strap or handles. The purse was under Mrs. Williams' right arm as she stood by her car preparing to unlock the door. Defendant*fn1 walked up beside Mrs. Williams, very close and to her left. She thought he was going to ask her a question. She said nothing to him, and he said nothing to her. As Mrs. Williams was looking at defendant, waiting for him to say something, "he reached across [her] and just slid [her] pocketbook -- which wasn't very hard to -- from under [her] arm and took off." She screamed, "he took my purse, he took my purse." People came out of a nearby building to help. It was stipulated that Mrs. Williams suffered no bodily injury.
Robbery at common law is "the felonious taking of personal property from the person or custody of another by force or intimidation." State v. Butler, 27 N.J. 560, 589 (1958). The degree of force is not material. Force which prevents resistance is sufficient. 4 Wharton's Criminal Law § 472, at 55 (14th ed. 1981). Force is sufficient which induces the victim to part with his property unwillingly. Perkins on Criminal Law § 2, at 283 n. 33 (2nd ed. 1957). N.J.S.A. 2A:141-1 (repealed) was declaratory of the common law. It prohibited forcible taking from another by violence or putting in fear. State v. Bowden, 62 N.J. Super. 339, 345 (App.Div.1960); State v. Cottone, 52 N.J. Super. 316, 323 (App.Div.1958). See also State v. Culver, 109 N.J. Super. 108, 111 (App.Div.1970). Larceny from the person was a theft without force or fear, State v. Harrison, 149 N.J. Super. 220, 227 (App.Div.1977), for example, removal of a wallet from the pocket of a sleeping man. Bartow v. Brands, 15 N.J.L. 248, 250 (Sup.Ct.1836).
In the new Criminal Code, theft was intended to include "snatching from the presence or even the grasp of the owner."
II New Jersey Penal Code: Commentary § 2C:20-3, at 222 (Final Report of the New Jersey Criminal Law Revision Commission 1971). As originally enacted in the Criminal Code, N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1 omitted the concept of "force." It provided that a person is guilty of robbery if, in the course of committing a theft, he:
(1) Inflicts bodily injury upon another; or
(2) Threatens another with or purposely puts him in fear of immediate bodily injury; or
(3) Commits or threatens immediately to commit any crime of the first or second degree.
In 1981, N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1(a)(1) was amended to add the words "or uses force" so that it now reads, "inflicts bodily injury or uses force upon another." L. 1981, c. 22, § 1.*fn2 The legislative statement explained the purpose of the amendment:
Senate Bill No. 885 extends the definition of robbery to cover the so-called "blindside" mugging. This occurs when a person commits an act of theft -- for example a purse-snatching -- by approaching the victim from behind and using some degree of force to wrest the object of his theft from the victim. Often, however, no bodily injury is inflicted in these ...