Crimes Against the Person

The term “crimes against the person" refers to a broad array of criminal offenses which usually involve bodily harm, the threat of bodily harm, or other actions committed against the will of an individual. 

Crimes involving bodily harm (or the threat thereof) include battery, assault, and domestic violence. Additionally, offenses such as harassment, stalking, and kidnapping also are considered crimes against the person. This section contains several articles covering the basics of such crimes. It includes definitions and sentencing information.

Although related to crimes against the person, articles about first-degree murder, the death penalty, and other forms of homicide are not discussed here. Likewise, separate pages will address the crimes of sexual abusechild abuse or neglect, and human trafficking. If you are seeking to learn about how to file a civil lawsuit for assault or battery, see the Assault, Battery, and Intentional Torts subsection in FindLaw's Accidents and Injuries section.

Assault and Battery

Assault is an intentional attempt, using violence or force, to injure or harm another, or to create a reasonable apprehension of immediate harm towards another. Battery is the act of intentional, nonconsensual touching or applying force to another person such that the person suffers physical harm or offense. Both are crimes of violence.

Today, many states combine these offenses into one statute. Some states break out the crime of committing threats (menacing) as a separate offense. At the most basic level, a simple assault or a simple battery is a misdemeanor offense. The offender will face potential penalties of jail time, fines, and costs.

Crimes of assault and battery can rise to the level of a felony under certain circumstances. When one of these aggravating factors is present, the state may charge felonious or aggravated assault. State laws vary, but aggravating factors leading to criminal charges may include:

  • The presence or use of a deadly weapon
  • Causing serious physical harm
  • When the victim is a teacher engaged in their official duties
  • When the victim is a police officer, firefighter, or EMS worker engaged in their official duties
  • When the victim is a health care provider engaged in their official duties
  • When the victim is a child protective services worker engaged in their official duties
  • When the offender is driving under the influence (DUI) or caused serious physical harm

Oftentimes, when the offender causes serious physical harm, there may be a presumption favoring a prison sentence.

Self-defense and duress are common defenses in assault and battery cases. Under a self-defense theory, an accused must generally show:

  • A threat of unlawful force or harm against them
  • A real perceived fear of harm or bodily injury to themselves (there must be a reasonable basis for this perceived fear)
  • No harm or provocation on their part
  • There was no reasonable chance of retreating or escaping the situation

In some states with 'stand your ground' laws, there may no longer be a need to retreat or escape.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is a pattern of abusive behaviors used by one individual intended to exert power and control over another individual in the context of an intimate or family relationship. Types of crime associated with domestic violence include:

  • Physical violence
  • Sexual assault
  • Economic control
  • Psychological abuse (threats of violence and physical harm, and attacks against personal property, including pets)
  • Emotional abuse

The elements of the crime of domestic violence often mirror the elements of assault and battery. However, they include an intimate or family relationship.

State laws vary on the definition and penalties for domestic violence. A first offense may be a misdemeanor. Subsequent offenses will lead to felony enhancement. In some states, a first offense may become a felony with the presence of an aggravating circumstance. For example, in Ohio, if the offender knows that the victim of the domestic violence charge is pregnant at the time of the assault, the charge becomes a felony and can carry mandatory time.

Serious crimes involving domestic violence may bring more criminal charges. For example, if the abuser strangles the victim to the point where they become unconscious, the state may charge felony strangulation and attempted murder counts along with the domestic violence charge.

If domestic violence occurs across state lines, the state may also refer the case for federal charges. Federal law also prohibits an offender convicted of domestic violence from owning or possessing a firearm.

Kidnapping and Abduction

Most violent crimes remain at the state level for investigation and prosecution in local courts. This includes crimes of kidnapping, abduction, and related offenses.

Kidnapping means taking a person against their will from one place to another or holding a person against their will, oftentimes for a specific criminal purpose. State offenses on kidnapping may vary based on the intent, the substantial risk of harm, or the level of endangerment involved. Specific purposes such as child molestation can bring the harshest penalties.

Abduction can be a lesser included offense of kidnapping. It may require that the offender (having no privilege to do so), by force or threat, either:

  • Remove another person from where they are
  • Restrain the freedom of another person in a manner that creates a risk of physical harm or places the other person in fear

Abduction is similar to the civil tort action of false imprisonment. For example, say that a police officer arrests someone for allegedly committing a crime without probable cause. They may have committed an act of false imprisonment. False imprisonment can occur anytime someone knowingly holds or detains another person without lawful authority and without consent.

Federal laws address kidnapping cases that go across state lines or national boundaries. Congress adopted federal kidnapping laws in 1932 as a part of the Lindbergh Act, which got its name from the kidnapping of the famous pilot's baby son. Federal kidnapping statutes also specifically prohibit kidnapping in U.S. territories, on the high seas, in the air, of foreign government officials, and of internally protected persons.

Defenses to kidnapping may include consent, lack of intent, or mistake of fact.

Stalking and Harassment

Crimes related to stalking and harassment became more prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s. These crimes seem to expand and evolve along with changes in technology.

The definition of stalking varies based on state law. A common form of the law states that a person must knowingly engage in a pattern of behavior (usually two or three incidents close in time) that causes another person to either:

  • Believe that the offender will cause them physical harm
  • Have mental distress (a mental illness or condition; can be temporary or long-lasting)

Incidents that make up stalking can include criminal and non-criminal behavior. When viewed as a whole, they may present a pattern of conduct consistent with stalking. For example, an offender may make several unwanted phone calls to the victim after a breakup. Alone, the calls may not equate to phone harassment or stalking. When they make the calls and then cause an impairment to the victim's motor vehicle, their conduct may meet the definition of stalking.

Advances in technology led to the ability to stalk others online through social media and chat rooms. The use of smartphones led to telecommunication harassment through calls and text messages. Given how quickly stalking behavior can escalate to actual instances of harm, states often provide aggravating factors that enhance stalking from a misdemeanor to a felony. Enhancements may occur due to:

  • Prior convictions
  • Direct threats (menacing)
  • Trespassing on the victim's property or causing serious damage to it
  • The existence of a protection order against the offender
  • Other evidence of dangerousness
  • Whether the victim is a child protective services worker performing their duties

Harassment is a general term that may or may not encompass criminal behavior. At this point, most states have expanded statutes that ban phone harassment to other forms of telecommunications and electronic devices. As with stalking, these crimes may begin as misdemeanors but become felony charges on a second or third offense.

Hate Crimes

Hate crimes are usually crimes against persons that the offender commits from a specific bias or prejudice. Because the motivation for the crime comes from prejudice against a protected group of citizens, the state provides enhanced penalties. Several protected groups may be targets of hate crimes based on the victim's actual or perceived:

  • Race or ethnic background
  • Religion
  • Nationality
  • Sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity
  • Disability

Prosecutions of hate crimes can present unique obstacles. The First Amendment permits and protects free speech, even what most would consider hateful speech. The government cannot prosecute citizens solely for holding unpopular beliefs. Before filing charges of a hate crime, law enforcement will conduct a thorough investigation to establish proof that the motivation of the criminal offense came from hateful bias or prejudice.

Not all states provide for hate crime prosecutions. They may only provide enhancement of penalties for "ethnic intimidation" or a similar motivation. When appropriate, state investigators can make a referral to federal prosecutors for consideration of hate crime charges.

Oftentimes, the state will proceed with charges against the offender for state law crimes. The federal government may then file charges against the offender for violations of the civil rights of the victim. For example, in the murder case that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the state filed second-degree murder and other charges under state law against the police officers. The federal government then pursued charges for violation of Floyd's civil rights in federal court.

How a Criminal Defense Lawyer Can Help You

Crimes against another person represent some of the most serious criminal offenses in the law. Convictions for such crimes can have long-standing effects on the lives of victims and offenders. If you are facing a criminal case and are not sure about the laws in your state or how they apply to your situation, consider seeking legal advice as soon as possible. A skilled criminal defense attorney may help you understand the legal process and the defenses that may apply in your situation. Having an expert in criminal defense law can help you achieve the most favorable outcome possible.

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