Criminal Law

What Is Assault?

Assault and battery are commonly used together or interchangeably, but there are differences, and each state can treat the terms differently in its laws. The main difference between assault and battery is intent and whether the victim was harmed. There are also levels of assault, depending on the circumstances.

Definition of Assault

Some jurisdictions define assault as an act intended to cause fear of bodily harm or offensive contact. This does not require any physical contact to actually happen. In other jurisdictions, however, assault means an attempt to injure another person.

Regardless of physical contact, an assault requires an intentional act. Verbal threats on their own are generally not enough to constitute assault. However, throwing a punch (whether you make contact or not) can result in an assault charge.

An assault charge doesn't always require that the person intend to do physical harm. In some cases, the intent to scare another person is enough to be considered an assault.

Difference Between Assault and Battery

Assault is usually an attempt to harm another person, or make them fear bodily harm. Battery is intentional, physical contact that is offensive or harmful. However, battery doesn't necessarily need to cause actual harm to the victim. Many types of non-consensual contact can constitute battery.

To be considered a battery, the act needs to be intentional, non-consensual, and offensive. In some cases, spitting on another individual could lead to battery charges. The offensive or harmful contact also doesn't need to be direct. Intentionally throwing an object at someone, for instance, could also be considered battery.

Battery also requires the intent to physically touch the victim. The intent in a battery doesn't necessarily need to be to cause harm to the victim. For example, suppose you intentionally grab another person's wrist to keep them from leaving in the middle of an argument. In that case, the law of your jurisdiction may consider that battery, even if you did not want to cause harm. In some cases, negligent or reckless acts are also labeled as battery.

What Is Aggravated Assault?

Some states, such as New York, separate assault into multiple levels. The most serious level is first-degree assault, often referred to as aggravated assault. Aggravated assault in most jurisdictions requires the use of a dangerous weapon or the intent to commit a serious crime. The assault generally also involves extreme disregard for human life and causing severe bodily harm to the victim.

In other jurisdictions, the identity of the victim can elevate an assault to an aggravated assault. An assault against a police officer or firefighter, for example, could be considered aggravated. Additionally, assaults based on the victim's status in a protected class, such as race, religion, or sexual orientation, can fall into the category of hate crimes, which can constitute an aggravated assault.

Second- and Third-Degree Assault

Less serious than an aggravated assault, a second-degree assault can also involve using a dangerous weapon. However, the intent behind the assault is usually what makes the difference between aggravated and second-degree assault. Likewise, the level of bodily harm in a second-degree assault may be lower than in an aggravated assault.

A third-degree assault might be considered the least serious level of the offense in some states. A third-degree assault may involve injuries that are not physical, such as mental or emotional trauma that can result in PTSD. A third-degree assault may also involve failed attempts at injuring another individual.

Aggravated Assault and Simple Assault

Some states, such as California and Texas, do not separate assault into three levels. The offense is divided into two categories: aggravated assault and simple assault. If the act does not qualify as aggravated assault, it is considered simple assault, which could be a misdemeanor offense.