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
- Florida Sentencing Enhancements: 10-20-LifeThis article provides a general overview of Florida's 10-20-Life statute. 10-20-Life operates to enhance the penalties of those offenders to who use weapons and, more specifically, firearms during the commission or attempted commission of certain felony offenses.
- Statutes of Limitations and Sexual AssaultThe sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby have focused attention on statutes of limitations for cases involving rape, and whether or not they should exist at all.
- Stiff Fines and Penalties for Road RageCameras are always rolling in Hollywood, and recently they captured real-life drama between two motorists.
- When Should I Call the Police?Many people may be hesitant to involve law enforcement in their daily lives. However, there are certain times when the police should be called to help protect citizens and their rights.
- Escalating and Deescalating Murder ChargesOn June 5, 2011, there was a case of a transgendered female who was out for a night on the town when she and some of friends were harassed by a group of young men. It started out with harsh words and eventually descended into violence. When she walked away, she was assaulted by one of the men, and she took a pair of scissors from her purse. She stabbed the assaulter, leading to his death.
- What Do I Do If Attacked In A Public Place?Many find it surprising to know that violence has actually been on a steady decline for decades. Unfortunately, it does still happen. Often, altercations occur in a public location, such as a bar or club, a store, or a park or public street. When an attack occurs, what can you do to defend yourself and who is liable for any harm you suffer?
- Bill Cosby's Latest Sexual Assault AccusationsComedian and actor, Bill Cosby, is no stranger to the spotlight, but his recent media attention has not been favorable.
- The Law of Self DefenseMost Americans believe that they can legally use force to protect themselves in the event of an attack, or the threat of death or bodily injury by another. What most Americans don’t realize is that the law of self defense is not always applicable as a defense.
- Collateral Consequences Continue to Impact IndividualsEveryone makes mistakes. Those of us who have made impulsive or uniformed decisions in our lives may have suffered severe consequences for them, such as being arrested or serving time in jail.
- Differences Between Assault and Aggravated AssaultAssault and aggravated assault charges in Florida differ based on a variety of factors, including if a deadly weapon was involved in the offense and who is the alleged victim. Assault generally is a misdemeanor with possible jail time, but aggravated assault is a felony offense with harsher penalties.
- All Criminal Law Articles
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