In most jurisdictions, assault and battery is a crime committed when a person attempts to physically harm another person, and acts in a way that causes the victim to fear that he will be harmed. While assault and battery were traditionally classified as two very distinct crimes, modern laws pair them together as one offense. To explore this concept, consider the following assault and battery definition.
Definition of Assault and Battery
- An unlawful physical attack, or threat of violence, on an individual, with or without actual injury.
- A crime in which there is actual touching or violence along with the intent to cause a person harm and/or fear.
1200-1250 Middle English asaut
What is Assault and Battery
A primary factor in either crime, assault or battery, is having the intent to cause harm to another person. Modern laws pair the offenses of assault and battery together as one, with the idea that making threats of violence, engaging in threatening behavior that causes the victim fear he will be harmed, and actually physically harming someone all show an intent to cause harm.
Difference Between Assault and Battery
According to historic criminal laws, assault and battery were two crimes that could possibly occur at the same time. Assault referred to any intentional act that causes another person to be fearful of immediate harm. This required the perpetrator to have the means or ability to carry out his threat, making the victim’s fear valid, and no actual physical contact was required.
Battery, on the other hand, referred to an intentional and offensive physical contact with a victim who had not given his consent to be touched. Merely touching someone without his consent could potentially be considered battery, even if force wasn’t applied. Although assault and battery is now considered to be a single crime in almost every jurisdiction in the United States, the courts in many may charge a perpetrator with separate crimes of assault or battery if it wishes to do so.
Assault and Battery Charges
Some jurisdictions use different degrees to classify assault and battery cases. First-degree assault and battery charges are the most severe and it includes extreme bodily harm, usually with the use of a weapon. Some laws use the term “aggravated assault and battery” charges in place of first-degree assault.
Other ways to designate the various assault and battery charges include:
- Simple Assault – no weapon is used, and the injuries sustained by the victim are relatively minor. Simple assault is usually a misdemeanor.
- Aggravated Assault – an assault committed with a weapon, or an assault or threat of harm committed with the intent to commit a more serious crime, such as rape. Assault against a person in a protected class, such as an elderly person, or a child. Aggravated assault is a felony.
- Sexual Assault – a catchall term referring to any act of a sexual nature perpetrated on a person without his or her consent. This may include such acts as sexual intercourse, sexual touching, or penetration by an object. Sexual assault also refers to forcing a person to touch the perpetrator in a sexual manner. Sexual assault is a crime of violence, and is a felony.
- Assault With a Deadly Weapon – physical assault or violence committed by using, or attempting to use, a weapon or object that is capable of causing serious injury or death. Guns and knives are not the only things considered weapons, as just about any object could be used to cause serious harm, including such items as a golf club, a screwdriver or wrench, a pocket or kitchen knife, a rock, broken window, boot, or car. Assault with a deadly weapon is a felony, no matter what type of weapon is used.
Example of Simple Assault
Melonie walks into a bar with her friends for a girls’ night out, and sees her boyfriend dancing suggestively with another woman. Enraged, Melonie runs over, grabs the other woman by the hair, and drags her to the ground, where they scuffle until Melonie’s friends pull them apart. The police had already been called, and when they arrive a few minutes later, Melonie is arrested for simple assault. The crime Melonie committed is classified as a “simple” assault because she used no weapon, and her victim received only a few bruises and minor scratches. Melonie has committed a misdemeanor.
Example of Aggravated Assault
Sarah walks into a bar with her friends for a girls’ night out, and sees her boyfriend dancing suggestively with another woman. Enraged, Sarah runs over, screaming at her boyfriend, and shoves the woman, who shoves back. Sarah grabs the woman’s hair and drags her half way across the room, where the two start swinging fists at one another, until the bouncer gets them separated. In her rage, Sarah didn’t even notice that the woman is pregnant, but this means she is in a protected class in most jurisdictions. When the police arrive, Sarah, who started the fight, is arrested and charged with aggravated assault. Sarah has committed a felony.
Assault and Battery Punishments
Assault and battery punishments vary greatly, depending on the laws of the jurisdiction and the circumstances surrounding the crime. Generally, assault and battery punishments range from fines and community service, to imprisonment of one year or more. While first time offenders may receive more leniency, repeat offenders often face stiffer penalties for similar crimes.
Commonly, felony assault charges result in prison terms of 5 to 25 years. Misdemeanor assault and battery charges may result in probation, a fine, community service, or imprisonment in the county jail for up to one year.
In addition to facing criminal charges, a perpetrator charged with assault and battery might face civil liability. If the victim is injured, or suffered physical or emotional distress, he could sue the perpetrator in civil court, where the perpetrator may be ordered to pay money damages in the form of medical bills, including prescription medications, compensation for the victim’s lost days at work, and even money for the pain and suffering he caused the victim. Civil liability may be proven even if the perpetrator escaped criminal prosecution, or was acquitted at trial. The burden of proof for civil liability is must less stringent, requiring that the victim prove only that it is more likely than not that the actions of the perpetrator caused his injuries and other losses.
Assault and Battery Defenses
Most individuals charged with assault and battery claim they were defending themselves. A claim of self defense requires the perpetrator prove certain elements were present:
- The other party made a threat of harm or unlawful force against him.
- He had a genuine fear of being harmed by the other party.
- There was no provocation on his part.
- There was no reasonable chance he could have retreated or escaped.
Other assault and battery defenses include a lack of intent to harm the other party, that the perpetrator acted in defense of his property, or that he lacked the mental capacity to intentionally harm someone.
Assault and Battery Cases
Garratt v. Dailey
In 1955, 5-year old Brian Dailey pulled Ruth Garratt’s chair out from beneath her just as she was sitting down. Ruth, who was an adult, fell and broke her hip. Ruth’s family sued little Brian for Ruth’s injuries, claiming he had committed the act, technically battery, intentionally, even though he didn’t intend to injure her. The court ruled in favor of Dailey claiming he did not intend to cause injury. Nevertheless, the court made a finding of $11,000, which was overturned on appeal. (See Garratt v. Dailey, 46 Wash. 2d 197, 279 P.2d 1091 (Wash. 1955)).
Vosburg v. Putney
Fourteen-year old Andrew Vosburg had injured his leg, and it was not healing quickly. One day a classmate, 11-year old George Putney, reached across the aisle with his foot and made contact with Vosburg’s leg just below the knee, technically committing battery. Vosburg didn’t feel the contact initially, it was so light, but felt severe pain at the site a few minutes later. The injury became so severe, that Vosburg suffered vomiting and severe swelling, and required two surgeries, during which it was discovered that the bone in his leg had degenerated so badly that the child lost the use of his leg.
Andrew Vosburg’s parents filed a lawsuit against George Putney for battery. The trial court found in Vosburg’s favor, awarding him only $2,800. Putney’s family appealed, and a new trial was ordered due to an error in the first trial. During the trial, Putney’s defense made the point that he had no knowledge that Vosburg suffered from a prior injury, and so he could not have intended to cause such a severe injury. The trial court again decided in favor of Andrew Vosburg, awarding him only $2,500.
The case of Vosburg v. Putney is a prime example of the rule in common law called the “eggshell skull rule,” which basically means that an individual (the defendant) takes another individual (the plaintiff) as he finds him. It does not matter that the defendant had no knowledge that the plaintiff had a prior injury (an “eggshell skull”), as he should know that his actions could cause serious injury to another person. (See Vosburg v. Putney, 80 Wis. 523, 50 N.W. 403 (Wisc. 1891)).
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Criminal Act – An act committed by an individual that is in violation of the law, or that poses a threat to the public.
- Criminal Charge – A formal accusation by a prosecuting authority that an individual has committed a crime.
- Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
- Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
- Emotional Distress – A negative emotional reaction, such as anguish, humiliation, or grief, resulting from the conduct of another individual. Also referred to as “mental anguish.”
- Judicial Decision – A decision made by a judge regarding the matter or case at hand.
- Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
- Intent – A resolve to perform an act for a specific purpose; a resolution to use a particular means to a specific end.
- Liable – Responsible by law; to be held legally answerable for an act or omission.
- Overturn – To change a decision or judgment so that it becomes the opposite of what it was originally.
- Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
- Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.
- Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.