What is Assault Law?
Assault law deals with the consequences of the wrongful act of causing fear of physical contact to another person. It is treated as a crime and a tort, meaning offenders can be prosecuted by the government, or sued for civil damages by the victim, or both. The purpose of assault law is to deter people from exhibiting aggressive, threatening behavior toward others, even if physical contact does not actually occur. If contact does occur, the act is usually treated as the separate offense of battery.
Most state criminal codes make assault a misdemeanor punishable by fines and up to one year in the county jail. Cases involving threats of death or serious bodily harm are charged as “aggravated assault.” The crime of aggravated assault is a felony, usually punishable by fines and a maximum of 10 to 20 years in prison. In civil tort cases, the size of the monetary damage award will likewise escalate based on the seriousness of the defendant’s conduct.
Elements of a Criminal Conviction
Describing assault as the act of causing fear of physical contact is sufficient for general purposes. But those facing prosecution will want to closely examine each specific element of the crime, as a failure by the state to prove any one element will result in acquittal. The elements of the crime of assault differ slightly from state to state. Defendants should examine the exact language of the assault statute that applies in the jurisdiction where the charges were filed.
That said, there are certain elements common to the crime of assault in all states. Foremost is the element of intent. Intent is a central issue because, as one might expect, defendants charged with scaring someone will often assert that the entire incident was an accident or the result of a misunderstanding. To overcome such a claim, the prosecutor will have to show that the defendant meant for the victim to become scared. The subjective knowledge of the defendant may or may not be relevant to this inquiry.
For example, if the defendant is charged with assault for pointing a gun at the victim, it will not matter what was going on inside the defendant’s mind at the time. Intent will be inferred from the circumstances, because it is common knowledge that people fear for their safety when a gun is pointed at them. On the other hand, consider a defendant with a dog who approaches an individual who, unbeknownst to the defendant, is deathly afraid of dogs. In this situation, the defendant’s ignorance of the victim’s phobia will defeat the assault charge. Of course, if the defendant knew about the phobia, then the intent requirement is satisfied and the defendant can be convicted.
Another element of criminal assault that commonly arises at trial is the “imminent bodily harm” requirement. Not only must the defendant intentionally cause the victim to fear harm, but the fear must be for a particular type of harm. To begin with, it must be bodily harm. Thus, threats to steal property or damage the victim’s reputation will not qualify. The fear must also be of imminent harm. This means that threats to cause physical harm at a later time, no matter how menacing, cannot result in a conviction.
Defenses to the Crime of Assault
Besides challenging the prosecutor’s ability to establish any of the statutory elements of assault, defendants can avoid conviction by establishing an affirmative defense. Affirmative defenses to assault include the victim’s consent to the activity, or in some cases, intoxication of the defendant. Self-defense will also negate a charge of assault. To prove self-defense, the defendant must show the assault was reasonably necessary to protect the defendant against equal or greater bodily harm that would have been inflicted by the victim.
Civil Remedies for Assault Victims
Not everyone in need of assistance with an assault law issue has been charged with a crime. Victims of assault can turn to the justice system to obtain compensation for the harm they suffered. While the elements of the tort are generally the same as required for a criminal conviction, civil plaintiffs need only prove their case “by a preponderance of the evidence.” This standard is easier to satisfy than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” burden of proof that applies in criminal court.
A number of issues can arise in a civil assault case that will affect the defendant’s liability. First, indirect conduct is sufficient. The defendant does not need to make the threat in person. Setting a trap to injure the plaintiff would qualify, for example. However, phone calls or text messages do not constitute assault. Verbal threats must be accompanied by some additional action that puts the victim in fear of imminent physical harm. Also, a defendant can be held liable for the tort of assault even if an apparent threat is not real. Hence, a victim threatened with a fake or unloaded weapon can recover damages, as long as the victim perceived the threat to be legitimate.
Hiring the Right Lawyer
The facts surrounding the defendant’s conduct, and how they are presented in court, will make all the difference in an assault case. Criminal defendants and civil plaintiffs should therefore choose an experienced trial attorney. When the circumstances of an assault are in dispute, it may very well require a trial to expose the truth.
Know Your Rights!
Articles For Assault Law
- Stand Your Ground Laws ExplainedOne of the most notorious stand your ground cases involved George Zimmerman. The Florida case made national news, not the least of which occurred after Zimmerman was found not guilty by a Florida jury after they determined that he had used legitimate self-defense under the law. The Michael Dunn trial resulted in a hung jury.
- Explanation of Violent CrimesIndividuals who have been charged with a violent crime may wish to seek immediate legal counsel in order to help combat the potential consequences of such charges. Having a firm understanding of these crimes and the charges associated with them can help provide a better defense.
- Facing Assault and Battery Charges? What You Need to KnowAssault and battery charges are very serious in nature. Being convicted of a crime of this nature corresponds with potentially life-altering consequences. Due to the potential consequences, a person should immediately seek legal representation in order to have the best chance at avoiding a conviction.
- How Assault and Aggravated Assault DifferAssault charges and aggravated assault charges differ in a number of important ways. An assault charge may be elevated to an aggravated assault charge when certain factors are at play. Whether a charge is considered assault or aggravated assault also affects the potential punishment that a defendant can face.
- Repercussions of Domestic Violence AccusationsWhen domestic violence ensues, the person that perpetrates the acts and is convicted may find himself or herself on the receiving end of many harsh punishments. This conviction usually occurs when the prosecution is successful at proving the accused has harmed the victim in a violent and intentional way.
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- Self Defense LawsMany individuals believe that they have the legal right to protect themselves. However, there are times when self-defense laws do not apply. If a person uses self-defense in an instance when this defense does not apply, the person executing self-defense may face criminal charges of his or her own.
- Battery: Civil and Criminal ConsequencesWhen a person is the aggressor in a battery case, he or she may be subject to criminal charges. He or she may also be subject to a civil complaint.
- Evidence Necessary for a Protective Order Involving Family ViolenceWhen attempting to get a protective order when family violence is involved, victims are often confronting a complex issue. However, it is important to steadily pursue this goal in order to receive the myriad benefits that this tool provides.
- What You Should Know About Domestic ViolenceDomestic violence is a serious problem in the United States. It often affects every segment of society. Whether you are a victim of domestic violence, someone accused of domestic violence or a witness to what you suspect is domestic violence, there are many things for you to know about this subject.
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Assault Law – US
- Assault - Overview by the Law Digest
Assault is an intentional attempt or threat to inflict injury upon a person, coupled with an apparent, present ability to cause the harm, which creates a reasonable apprehension of bodily harm or offensive contact in another.
- Assault and Sexual Assault - Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) - US Department of Justice
The Office on Violence Against Women (OVW), a component of the U.S. Department of Justice, provides national leadership in developing the nation's capacity to reduce violence against women through the implementation of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).
- Assault, Conditional Assault and Aggravated Assault
An assault is classified as either an attempted battery or an intentional frightening of another person; physical contact is not an element of the crime in either of these situations. Many states do not define assault, and some states list it under attempt rather than under assault.
- US Code: Title 18, Part I - Chapter 7 - Crimes - Assault
Assault Law - International
- Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault
- Criminal Code Act - Part V - Chapter 25 - Nigeria
- Offences Against The Person - Common Assault - England and Wales
- Offences Against the Person Act 1861 - Assaults - UK
- Penal Code - Chapter XVI - Assault - Singapore
- Personal Safety & UK Laws
- Section 265 to Section 272 of the Canadian Criminal Code - Assault
- Sexual Assault Laws in the CEE/FSU Region