Assault and battery is often used together, sometimes seemingly interchangeably, but there is a distinct difference between the two; although, someone can be charged with both assault and battery. The distinction lies with whether a physical, intentionally harmful act occurred or was merely threatened. Assault and battery can come with a wide variety of penalties depending on the severity of the actions, ranging from felony charges to civil lawsuits. Other determining points for sentencing can include aggravating and mitigating factors involved in the crime. As such, there are certain elements that can cause a case to be elevated to aggravated assault, which will likely come with a felony charge. However, there are still aspects of the crime that must be proven for a guilty verdict and defenses that can be made. To best prepare that defense, one should be thoroughly familiar with their state’s particular assault and battery laws – or the federal law if they’re facing higher level charges.
Assault vs. Battery
Assault and battery together mean that a physical crime was carried out, whether it caused actual harm to the person or not. However, they can become separate charges depending on whether the act is followed through with or if someone simply was put into potential harm’s way. By way of a basic example, if one is standing by a tall ledge with someone, and they reach out as if to push them off the side, and the victim fears they will be pushed off, this is assault, even if they aren’t pushed off. If the defendant were to actually push the person off the ledge, this would be battery. To put it simply, battery is the completion of physical force to someone else, while assault is attempted battery. One can be charged with assault and battery, assault, or battery, all depending on whether the contact actually occurred and if the victim was in fear of it happening beforehand.
What Is Assault?
Encompassing more actions than battery does, assault is the threat of injuring someone with reason to believe they will follow through with the action. As such, simple threats likely won’t be enough for an assault charge. Rather, it requires that the victim have actual, reasonable fear that harm is coming to them. This will usually come with some kind of action accompanying the threatening words, whether that be running at someone with a raised fist, pulling out a weapon, or otherwise giving indication that they’re capable of and intending to cause harm to someone. Back to the ledge example, if the defendant were to unsuccessfully lunge at the victim from behind to push them off the edge, and the victim doesn’t notice, this likely wouldn’t be assault, as the victim had no fear they were in danger. To prove assault, the following must have occurred:
- The defendant made some action
- The defendant intended to cause the victim to be in fear of being harmed
- The defendant gave grounds for the victim to reasonably believe the defendant is capable of carrying out the harmful act
The action can be a physical action of approaching someone in a manner intending to cause harm or a threat to use force on someone. This must be accompanied with the defendant’s willful attempt to make the victim fear they are in danger. Additionally, this can include someone acting in a manner that would reasonably put others in harms way, even just through reckless disregard for human life. However, this does not include genuine accidents. Finally, there must be some general attempt to be made, or at least indications that the intent and capability is there for the defendant to cause harm. This leads to a path where someone could be charged with assault for only trying to scare someone, as long as the victim had real evidence and reason to believe the defendant was actually going to do it.
What Is Battery?
Battery is the actual following through of a physical act of force or touch, whether it actually causes harm or not. Simply touching without consent could be enough to result in battery charges, as long as the victim was reasonably offended by the defendant’s actions. As in the previous ledge example, if the defendant were to attempt to push the victim off the edge, and they succeed in pushing the defendant, but not off the edge or harming them, they could likely still be charged with battery. However, a battery charge does require the following to be proven:
- The defendant made some action
- The defendant intended to come into contact with the victim
- The contact was offensive or harmful
Yet it isn’t required that the contact be direct or that actual damages occur to the victim as a result.
Aggravated Assault and Battery vs. Simple Assault and Battery
On a federal level, assault that occurs under federal jurisdiction is under 18 U.S. Code § 113. With the specific penalties assigned to varying levels of assault, aggravating factors that will cause more severe sentencing can be identified. These include:
- Intent to kill
- Intent to commit sexual assault
- Intent to commit any other felony in conjunction with the assault
- Assault with a dangerous weapon
- Assault resulting in serious or substantial bodily injury
- Assault on a domestic partner
- Assault on a minor
- Certain methods of assault, such as strangulation, suffocation, and beating
Substantial bodily harm can mean temporary disfigurement or the loss or impairment of a body part, organ, or mental capacity. Serious bodily injury requires substantial risk of death or extreme pain, as well as permanent or visible disfigurement or loss or impairment of a body part, organ, or mental capacity.
Other factors that the judge will consider when determining a sentence include the defendant’s prior criminal history, the remorse shown by the defendant, and the defendant’s relationship with the victim. The relationship can be an especially important one, as the law often provides special protections for victims in positions of vulnerability, such as children, domestic partners, the disabled, victims of hate crimes, patients, pregnant women, and the elderly. Law enforcement, most federal workers, fire fighters, social service workers, teachers, and others may also be considered protected classes whose assault would come with an aggravated charge. The most influential aspect will likely be the amount of harm threatened or that comes upon the victim.
A simple assault and battery will usually just be a misdemeanor charge that generally isn’t a particularly violent act of assault. It’s also much more likely to receive a simple assault charge when it was only a threat and the action was not actually carried out. Simple battery may be when a physical touch occurred, but there was no physical harm done to the victim, such as spitting.
Assault and Battery Penalties
Federally, simple assault starts as a misdemeanor with a possible fine and jail time up to six months. If the victim is a minor, however, jail time can reach a year. An assault involving striking, wounding, or beating comes with a fine and up to a year in jail. The next level of assault from here is a felony. When causing substantial bodily harm to a spouse or partner, as well as to a minor under 16 years old, prison time can reach five years, along with a possible fine. If attempting to or succeeding in strangling or suffocating a partner, that sentence can reach ten years. Also with ten years imprisonment is assault resulting in serious bodily injury, assault with a deadly weapon with intent to do bodily harm, and assault with the intent to also commit a felony. If that felony is murder or sexual assault, however, that prison sentence can reach 20 years.
Other penalties that may come with assault and battery charges can include probation, community service, rehabilitation, restraining orders, and loss of parental rights. Additionally a felony charge can remain on one’s record for years, coming up on background checks and making it difficult to obtain employment, housing, and more.
Defenses for Assault and Battery
One of the first defenses some will turn to is that the assault was a result of self defense. This will generally require that the defendant prove that there was a reasonable threat against them that they truly believed, as well as that they did nothing to provoke the situation and had no option to escape. In other words, self defense should be a last resort and must be well justified to be a proper defense to assault charges. The amount of force used to stop the threat must also be reasonable.
Along with this, one could argue that they were working in the defense of others. This will require the same aspects to be proven about the situation to be an acceptable defense. Additionally, defense of one’s property could also be a defense. But this also has its limits.
Consent is another aspect that could demonstrate someone isn’t guilty of assault. In some cases, there may be consent to commit certain acts of contact, and that could be enough to drop assault charges. However, the assault must not go outside of the boundaries consented to in the beginning. This isn’t a flawless defense though, as sometimes even consent to particularly violent crimes may not be enough to get off without any charges.
As assault and battery need several aspects to be proven, the defendant could also try to find flaws in the prosecutions arguments for those aspects. For example, if doubt can be placed on the intentions of the defendant, as in they truly accidentally hurt someone, this could result in the dropping of charges. However, if negligence is involved, this may just lessen the sentence. A battery charge may also be able to be negotiated down to an assault charge if it can’t be proven that the contact actually occurred. Arguing against aggravating factors can also lessen a sentence. In the case of assault, one could argue that there were no actual reasons for the victim to be in fear of harm. Finally, one may argue their mental state, as intoxication could possibly cause the defendant to be less responsible for their actions.
In civil assault and battery cases, most of the aspects that must be proven won’t change; although assault as a result of negligence may not be enough for a civil charge. However, in criminal cases, it’s required that the prosecution prove the defendant’s guilt of all facets of the crime beyond reasonable doubt, meaning there is no other reasonable conclusion to be made other than the defendant’s guilt. In a civil case, that standard of proof will typically be on the plaintiff to prove by a preponderance of the evidence. This essentially means that the judge or jury must be much more convinced than not of the defendant’s guilt. As such, it may be easier to prove assault and battery occurred through a civil case.
Upon being found guilty in civil court, the defendant will likely have to pay the plaintiff damages, usually covering any harm the victim may have received. This will often cover the cost of medical bills if applicable, legal fees, emotional damage, and loss of wages.
Types of Assault
Domestic and sexual assault are certain types of harmful crimes. In domestic cases, the assault is carried out on a partner or other relative, while sexual assault involves touching someone inappropriately without their permission. These can be their own charges or aggravating circumstances in an assault and battery case. Either way, these are typically taken more seriously and have higher consequences than simple assault and battery.
Notably covered under the Violence Against Women Act, domestic violence is taken seriously in the criminal justice system. Committing assault and battery against a partner or relative, or even someone living with the defendant, can result in aggravated charges. Some states may even charge the defendant with multiple charges when domestic violence laws allow it. These cases may also see a lot of assault charges, as yelling at someone with considerable threats to put the victim in fear of harm, or emotional abuse, can be enough to make a conviction. Other penalties of a domestic violence conviction, besides jail time and fines, could include protective orders and the loss of gun rights.
Sexual assault includes any kind of forced touching, whether that be through unwanted contact, masturbation, or oral, vaginal, or anal sex. As battery simply requires offensive contact, sexual assault can result in battery charges against the defendant. According to 18 U.S. Code § 2242, federal sexual assault is punishable by any number of years in prison and a fine. Charges will become greatly aggravated if the victim is a minor, as well as if the victim is vulnerable to the defendant. Lack of consent also includes a victim who is “incapable of appraising the nature of the conduct.” The use of force, as well as substantial harm to the victim, will also result in more severe charges. Those found guilty of sex crimes may be required to register on the national sex offender registry or to attend some kind of rehabilitation.
Assault and Battery Charges
No matter the circumstances involved, assault and battery can be a very serious crime. As this is classified as a violent crime and always has a victim, there can be severe consequences as a result of these charges. The difference between assault and battery lies in whether there was a threat of harm or actual contact with the victim. Assault only requires that a victim be reasonably afraid that the defendant was going to cause them harm, as well as proof of the defendant’s intent to do so. To prove battery, there must have been some kind of intentional contact that was offensive or harmful. Aggravating factors can be the difference between an assault and battery charge being a misdemeanor or a felony, especially depending on who the victim was and how severe the harm was. Fighting against assault and battery charges may involve claiming their actions were in the defense of themselves, others, or their property. Additionally, consent and the presence of all required conditions can be used to build proper defenses as well. In some cases, even if criminal charges can’t be pursued, a victim may be able to press civil charges against their attacker.
If you’ve been accused of assault and battery, it’s best to get into contact with a lawyer and avoid all contact with the accuser without your attorney present.