State v. Toscano
74 N.J. 421, 378 A.2d 755 (1977)

  • Leonardo and a bunch of other people were involved in a scheme to defraud insurance companies. They would stage accidents in public places and then settle with the insurers for their fake injuries.
    • As part of their scheme they brought in a chiropractor named Toscano to make put false medical reports.
  • Everybody got arrested. Leonardo and others pleaded guilty, but Toscano claimed that he had acted under duress.
    • Toscano claimed that he only filed the false reports because Leonardo threatened to beat up his wife.
      • Toscano received no compensation for his participation in the fraud, and argued that he moved in an attempt to get away from Leonardo.
    • The prosecutor argued that Toscano participated in the fraud because he owed Leonardo’s brother money from gambling debts.
  • The Trial Court convicted Toscano of insurance fraud. He appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that the threatened harm was not sufficiently imminent enough to justify charging the jury on the defense of duress.
      • Under the common-law, the defense of duress requires that the result be death or serious bodily harm, that the threat be immediate and aimed at the accused, and that the crime be committed be a non-capital offense (aka not murder).
        • In this case, the threat was not immediate, and against Toscano’s wife.
  • The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed and remanded for a new trial.
    • The New Jersey Supreme Court noted that under the common-law, duress was only a defense when the threat was “present, imminent, and pending,” such as where someone is aiming a gun at you right now.
      • Toscano claimed that Leonardo had made threats, but those threats were indistinct and not immediate.
      • The Court noted that under the common-law, when there is a threat of future harm, a person has a duty to escape and report to the police. So duress isn’t a defense.
    • The Court modified the common-law of New Jersey to be more in line with Model Penal Code §2.09. The new rule is that the defense of duress is available for crimes other than murder if the defendant engaged in conduct because he was coerced to do so by the use of, or threat to use, unlawful force against his person or the person of another, which a person of ‘reasonable firmness’ in his situation would have been unable to resist.
      • That’s a question of fact for a jury to decide, so the case was remanded.