Are Verbal Threats Assault?

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 What Is Assault?

Assault is a cause of action in tort law that can be used as the basis of a civil case. Depending on the circumstances, assault is also an act found in criminal law that can be used to charge and prosecute a defendant to a criminal case. Regardless of the type of lawsuit, the definition of assault remains the same. However, the exact definition of assault for both civil and criminal purposes varies by jurisdiction.

In general, assault is typically defined as an intentional act that places another person in reasonable apprehension of immediate harm or offensive contact. In other words, the person being assaulted must be aware that they will soon be subject to imminent harm for the act to be considered assault.

Also, assault is often confused with battery since the two are typically lumped together; especially, in a criminal case. Thus, it is important to keep in mind that an assault does not require the use of any physical force, but it does require the victim to recognize that they are about to suffer an injury at the hands of the assaulter.

Can Verbal Threats Be Assault?

As briefly mentioned above, the definitions and requirements to prove assault will depend on the laws of a specific state. However, the general rule of thumb is that verbal threats are not usually considered an act of assault.

A verbal threat is a statement made to someone else in which the speaker declares that they intend to cause the listener harm, loss, or punishment. Although this definition sounds very similar to the definition for assault, simply uttering threatening words to another person will most likely not count as an assault.

However, a verbal threat may become an act of assault in certain situations. For example, if a person threatens another individual by saying they are going to hit them, these words alone will probably not qualify as an assault. On the other hand, if the person recites these words while wielding a baseball bat, then this could be viewed as a verbal assault.

Basically, a verbal threat becomes a crime when:

  • The speaker threatens to harm or kill the listener or the listener’s family;
  • The speaker’s threat is specific and unambiguous;
  • The listener has reasonable belief and fear that the speaker will carry their threat out; and
  • The speaker communicates the threat either verbally, in writing, or through electronic correspondence (e.g., email, text message, etc.).

When these elements are met and the circumstances suggest that a verbal threat is serious, a person can press charges for verbal threats. The person who was threatened can do this by calling the police and having them file an incident report. From there the police will conduct an investigation. If there is enough evidence, the police will submit the report to a local prosecutor who will then determine whether to press criminal charges against the individual.

What Are Some Examples of When Acts and Circumstances Constitute Assault?

The speaker’s actions and the circumstances surrounding an incident are crucial when determining whether or not an assault occurred.

For example, suppose two patrons are having an intense argument while drinking at a sports bar. One of them tells the other they are going to throw them off the roof for insulting their team. If the bar is located on the ground floor and both patrons are sitting on stools inside the bar, then this likely will not constitute assault. However, if they were standing on the roof of the bar during the argument, then this would be considered assault.

Continuing with the above example, suppose that instead of threatening to throw them off the roof, one of the patrons said they were going to smash their beer over the other patron’s head and said it while they were brandishing their glass in a threatening manner. The additional action of waving their glass would constitute assault.

As a final example, now suppose the two bar patrons are friends. One of the friends turns to the other and says they are going to kill them, but smiles or laughs after making the statement. Even though they threatened to kill them, their relationship and lack of intimidation in this scenario makes it less likely that their actions would qualify as assault.

Can There Be Assault If I Think I Can Safely Run Away from Harm?

Remember, to meet the standard definition of assault a situation requires there to be “a reasonable apprehension of imminent harm.” As such, once a person experiences an assault, it does not matter whether they can safely run away from the impending harm. The assault occurs the moment they become aware that they are in danger of being injured or harmed.

Can There Be an Assault If the Act Was Meant to Be a Practical Joke?

Although it will depend on the context and the people involved in the scenario, an act may still be considered an assault even if it was meant to be a practical joke. The reason why this is possible is due to one of the elements of proof in assault cases.

In a criminal assault case, the prosecutor must prove that a defendant intended their actions or behavior to create a reasonable apprehension of immediate harm or offensive contact to the victim. Thus, it is easy to imagine how this particular element can cause a practical joke to go seriously wrong.

For instance, suppose someone is having a non-themed birthday party. As a practical joke, two of their friends decide to show up wearing scary masks and brandishing weapons. If none of the guests realize who they are and they end up frightening everyone at the party, then they could be charged with assault if someone calls the police and reports the incident.

What are the Consequences of Verbal Assault?

There are a number of legal consequences that a person can face for committing an act of verbal assault. Some of these include having to pay criminal fines, being put on probation, and paying monetary damages to a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit.

Just because a person is not convicted, does not mean they will avoid being charged and arrested for verbal harassment. An act of verbal harassment may lead to being arrested when the harasser makes repeated remarks that constitute verbal abuse.

Additionally, a person may also have to go to jail for verbal threats. If a defendant to a verbal threat case is charged with a misdemeanor and convicted, they can face up to one year in jail. In cases that result in a felony conviction for making verbal threats, the defendant may face a significant prison sentence, ranging from at least one year or longer.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Assault Issues?

Assault can have serious legal consequences, even in instances where someone’s actions were intended to be a practical joke. Thus, if you are facing assault charges, then you should contact a local criminal defense attorney immediately.

On the other hand, if you have been assaulted and wish to sue your assaulter for civil damages, you should consult a local personal injury lawyer for further legal guidance. An experienced personal injury lawyer can explain how the laws in your state apply to assault cases, can determine whether or not you have a viable claim, and can help you receive the best outcome for your case.

In addition, your lawyer can discuss what potential remedies you may be able to recover if your case is successful, and also can provide representation in court or assist with negotiations during a settlement conference.


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