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Assault and Battery Overview

Many people have heard the phrase, "You're under arrest for assault and battery," on TV or in movies. The commonly heard phrase conjures up images of bar fights and parking lot brawls.

These shows often leave out the legal definitions of those crimes. The terms describe two separate legal concepts with distinct elements. Some states split them up, while others have combined them.

Generally, battery is the intentional act of making contact with another person in a harmful or offensive manner. Depending on the jurisdiction, assault is either the same act or is an attempt or threat to cause bodily injury. An assault typically places the victim in apprehension of, or fear of, imminent bodily harm.

Some jurisdictions have moved away from the term battery and now only prosecute varying degrees of assault. In most states, a person commits assault and battery when they strike or attempt to strike another or when they act in a threatening manner to put another in fear of immediate harm.

Intent is a necessary element of these crimes. Accidentally knocking someone over usually will not result in a battery. However, intentionally pushing, shoving, or contacting another person without consent may amount to simple battery. Simple battery and simple assault are generally misdemeanors.

Some states also have a separate category for aggravated assault or battery. There are many ways to heighten assault. For example, causing a serious bodily injury or using a deadly weapon are aggravating factors. Some jurisdictions consider intentionally harming vulnerable individuals to be aggravated assault.

This article provides an in-depth look at both offenses and their elements.

Criminal Battery: Definition

Although the statutes defining battery vary by jurisdiction, a typical definition for battery is the intentional unlawful touching of another person without their consent. Under this general definition, a battery offense requires all of the following:

  • Intentional touching or physical contact
  • The touching is harmful or offensive
  • The victim did not consent to the touching

For example, suppose Brad intentionally slaps Cole in the face. Cole then punches Brad in the stomach. Both Cole and Brad committed battery. They both intentionally made physical contact with each other. The contacts caused harm, and neither party consented to the contact. In this instance, both parties could bring criminal charges against the other. Cole, however, may have a legal defense that he acted in self-defense.

There is one important limitation to be aware of concerning the use of self-defense as a legal defense. The actions one takes in defending themselves must be reasonable and proportionate to the actions taken by the initial aggressor. Let's say that Cole, instead of punching Brad, hits him repeatedly in the head with a baseball bat causing Brad a serious, life-threatening injury. In that case, Cole's self-defense claim likely would fail. 

The reason is that Cole's actions far exceeded what was necessary to ensure his safety. Cole's response was disproportionate to the battery committed by Brad.

Criminal Battery: Intent Requirement

It may come as some surprise that a battery generally does not require any intent to harm the victim, although such intent often exists in battery cases. Instead, a person only needs the intent to cause offensive contact with another.

Additionally, if someone acts in a criminally reckless or negligent manner that results in such contact, it may constitute a battery. As a result, accidentally bumping into someone, offensive as the victim might consider it to be, likely is not a criminal battery.

What if Brad were to run through a crowd of people aimlessly swinging a bat, for example? While doing so, Brad hits Cole. Brad didn't set out to hit Cole with the bat, but his actions of running through the crowd while swinging the bat were reckless and carried with them the real possibility that someone would be hit. Brad could be charged with battery in this case.

Criminal Battery: Act Requirement

The criminal act required for battery boils down to an offensive or harmful contact. This can range anywhere from the obvious battery where a physical attack such as a punch or kick is involved, to even minimal contact in some cases.

Generally, a victim does not need to suffer a personal injury for the act to constitute a battery. If the contact is offensive, that is usually enough to amount to a battery.

But what exactly is offensive contact? In a classic example, spitting on a victim does not physically injure them. Nonetheless, it can constitute offensive contact sufficient for a battery. Whether a particular contact is considered offensive is usually evaluated from the perspective of the ordinary person.

A battery rises to the level of an aggravated battery when the offender intends to cause great bodily harm. For example, intentionally shooting someone with a gun is likely an aggravated battery. Such a battery may be a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances.

Criminal Assault: Definition

Generally, assault occurs when someone causes or attempts to cause injury to someone else. In some circumstances, it may include threats of physical harm. One common definition is an intentional attempt, using violence or force, to injure or harm another person.

Another straightforward way that assault is sometimes defined is as an attempted battery. In general, the main distinction between an assault and a battery is that no contact is necessary for an assault. Assault occurs when someone puts another person in reasonable apprehension of bodily harm. Battery requires the offender to make contact with another.

The definitions of assault vary from state to state. Minnesota, for example, combines assault and battery. Minnesota defines assault as follows:

  • An act done with intent to cause fear in another of immediate bodily harm or death 
  • The intentional infliction of or an attempt to inflict bodily harm against another

Minnesota categorizes assault into the following classifications:

  • First-degree assault: Whoever assaults or causes great bodily harm against a person or uses a dangerous weapon or deadly force against a judge, correctional employee, peace officer, or prosecuting attorney commits first-degree assault.
  • Second-degree assault: Whoever assaults a person with a dangerous weapon commits second-degree assault.
  • Third-degree assault: Whoever causes substantial bodily harm to a person, causes harm to a minor, if they have engaged in a pattern of causing harm to the minor, or assaults a victim under the age of four commits third-degree assault.
  • Fourth-degree assault: Whether someone commits fourth-degree assault depends on the victim's characteristics or status. The statute lists various victims, such as peace officers, firefighters, and school officials. Additionally, an assault motivated by bias, such as race, religion, or gender, is a fourth-degree assault.
  • Fifth-degree assault (simple assault): Whoever commits an act that puts another in fear of immediate bodily harm or death or intentionally inflicts or attempts to inflict bodily harm to another commits fifth-degree assault.

The punishments for each type of assault vary. For example, a fifth-degree assault is a misdemeanor, but if the offender commits another fifth-degree assault against the same victim within 10 years of the first assault, it is a felony assault.

Criminal Assault: Act Requirement

Even though contact is generally unnecessary for an assault offense, an assault conviction still requires a criminal act. The types of actions that fall into the category of assaults vary widely.

Typically, an assault requires an overt or direct act that would put a reasonable person in fear for their safety. Spoken words alone will not be enough to constitute an assault unless the offender backs them up with an act or actions that put the victim in reasonable fear of imminent harm.

For example, yelling threats at a person who is deaf and could not perceive the threat could still be a criminal assault. The person who is deaf could, in theory, see the person acting aggressively towards them and fear for their safety.

Yelling threats during a phone call at someone who is across the country would not necessarily be an assault. During the phone call, the threat of harm is not imminent, though this conduct might be the basis for a different crime.

Criminal Assault: Intent Requirement

To commit an assault, an individual only needs general intent. This means that someone cannot accidentally assault another person. It is enough to show that an offender intended the actions that make up an assault.

The noteworthy distinction is that "I was just joking" is not a good defense to an assault. The assaulter knowingly communicated the statement, regardless of the intent to threaten. Moreover, an intent to scare or frighten a different person, other than the actual victim, can be enough to establish assault charges under the theory of transferred intent.

Some jurisdictions have combined assault and battery into a single offense. This should come as no surprise because the two crimes are so closely related and often occur together. However, the basic concepts underlying the offenses remain the same.

Additional Resources

For more information about assault and battery, consider the following links:

You can find more general information in FindLaw's Criminal Law section.

More Questions About Assault and Battery? An Attorney Can Help

If law enforcement charges you with assault or battery, consider contacting a criminal defense attorney. There are many defenses to a charge of assault and battery, such as self-defense. An experienced criminal defense attorney can provide information about the following:

If you are facing a criminal assault or battery charge, contact a criminal defense lawyer for legal advice and representation.

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