Assault: Legal Definition, Elements, Examples, Charges, Penalties and Defenses

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 What Is Assault? What Are the Elements of an Assault Case?

In criminal law, the term “assault” refers to intentionally placing someone in fear that they will be physically harmed or experience offensive contact. Although the specific definition of assault may vary from state to state, the standard elements of a charge of assault are as follows:

  • The defendant must have intended to create a state of apprehension or fear in the victim by threatening physical contact. An accidental act will not give rise to assault charges; it must be intentional
  • The prosecutor must prove that the victim reasonably believed they would be harmed or offended by the defendant’s conduct. In other words, the victim must have been aware of, and be able to appreciate, the defendant’s potential to harm or offend them. The threatening conduct must be such that other people would feel fear or apprehension if they experienced this sort of conduct
  • The victim’s belief of impending injury must create a sense of immediate physical danger. The belief cannot be based on an act that is threatened to happen in the future
  • The defendant must exhibit a present intention to harm or offend the victim. In some instances, it may be difficult to prove whether or not a defendant intended to commit an assault. “Intent” is one of the elements that judges and juries often spend a lot of time deliberating on when deciding the final verdict.

Some types of strong evidence needed for assault charges include police reports, testimony from eyewitnesses, medical records (if applicable), and various other items that may be relevant to the assault incident.

Some states have statutes that define assault as attempted battery. However, assault and battery should not be confused with one another since many jurisdictions treat them as separate offenses. An easy way to remember the difference is that battery requires force and actual contact, whereas an assault needs the victim to reasonably believe or be aware that they are in danger of imminent harm, even if no physical injury occurs.

What Are Some Examples of Assault?

Some examples of assault include:

  • Attempting to spit on the victim
  • Miming the act of hitting, punching, or kicking the victim
  • Brandishing a deadly or non-deadly weapon in a manner that suggests the victim will be hit with that object or hurt by it
  • Pointing a gun at the victim, regardless of whether it is loaded or not

Is It Necessary to Strike Someone In Order to Be Found Guilty of Assault?

A person does not need to strike someone to be found guilty of assault. The legal definition and elements of proof for assault do not ever mention any kind of physical contact, but only the reasonable belief that harmful or offensive contact will be inflicted on the victim.

However, there are some acts that may offer stronger proof that an assault occurred. For example, getting in someone’s face can be considered assault if the assaulter is being aggressive and doing things like screaming, spitting, or threatening to hit the other person with an object they are holding (e.g., bat, beer bottle, fist, etc. On the other hand, getting in a friend’s face and pretending to slap them while both parties are laughing about it will not constitute an assault.

What Are the Penalties for Assault?

The penalties for assault vary based on state laws, the facts of an individual case, and the degree or type of assault that was committed.

A defendant charged and convicted of committing a simple assault (assault without a weapon) will be found guilty of a misdemeanor offense. Misdemeanor crimes can carry a sentence of up to one year in county jail and some criminal fines (usually no more than $1,000).

Other types of assault, such as aggravated assault or assault with a deadly weapon, may result in felony charges. Defendants who are convicted of committing a felony assault may need to serve a sentence of one year or longer in a state prison facility and might have to pay an increased amount of criminal fines that could range from anywhere between $100 to over $5,000.

The length of prison time and the amount of criminal fines may be increased in cases where the defendant is a repeat or habitual offender. In other words, if the defendant has been convicted of certain crimes, the legal consequences they may receive will usually be much more severe than those issued to first-time offenders.

Are There Any Legal Defenses to Assault Charges?

There are several different legal defenses that a defendant in an assault case might be able to raise against the charges. Whether the defense is available for a particular defendant, will depend on the facts of the specific case and on the laws of the jurisdiction hearing the matter.

Some potential defenses that a defendant who is charged with assault might be able to raise include:

  • Involuntary intoxication: If the defendant was involuntarily intoxicated (e.g., someone slipped a drug in their drink) when the assault occurred, then they may be able to argue that their actions were not intentional or that they were unaware of the events (due to being involuntarily intoxicated) that led to the assault
  • Lack of proof or evidence: If the prosecutor does not prove each element of the crime, or does not have enough evidence to support the assault charges, then lack of proof or evidence may be asserted as a defense
  • Consent: If the victim provided valid and voluntary consent to the behavior that is being charged as an assault, the defendant could raise consent as a complete defense against the charges
  • Duress or coercion: A defendant may assert that they were under duress or were coerced to commit the assault. While the defendant will admit that the assault did happen, the defendant has a strong defense if the defendant can prove someone else forced them to choose between committing the assault or suffering serious physical harm themselves.
  • Self-defense or defense of others: To use these defenses, the defendant must admit they committed the assault. However, in this instance, the defendant can argue that they only committed the assault to protect themselves against the other party’s initial threats of harm. A defendant can also use this defense if they defend a third party from an initial aggressor.

Sometimes these defenses will completely exonerate the defendant, and sometimes they may be used to reduce a defendant’s assault charges from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Do I Need an Attorney for Help with Assault Charges?

Being convicted of criminal assault can lead to serious legal consequences. Therefore, if you are facing charges of criminal assault, you should consult a local assault lawyer as soon as possible.

An experienced criminal lawyer can assist you in navigating the criminal justice system, inform you of your legal rights as a criminal defendant, and provide representation in court. Additionally, a criminal lawyer can perform legal research to find out whether there are any defenses you can raise to reduce the charges, or you may be able to advocate for dropping the case against you.

Your lawyer can also negotiate a plea bargain for you when possible.

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