Assault is a crime of violence against another person. In some
jurisdictions, including Australia and New Zealand, assault refers to an
act that causes another to apprehend immediate and personal violence,
while in other jurisdictions, such as the United States, England, and
Wales, assault refers only to the threat of violence caused by an
immediate show of force. The actual violence is termed "battery,"
although this charge does not exist in all jurisdictions. Simple
assaults that do not involve any aggravation, such as use of a deadly
weapon, are distinguished from aggravated assaults, with correspondingly
As with all crimes, the tendency of human beings to cause harm to each other has been present throughout history. While there is no disagreement that violence, or the threat of violence, causing pain to others, is wrong, still people persist in these acts. While some use of physical force has been deemed justified, such as by law enforcement officers in carrying out their duties, and the use of self-defense, or physical force to prevent another crime being committed, the ideal would be that no one would use violence against another, recognizing that deliberately causing pain and suffering is wrong. However, it is not stricter laws, law enforcement, or prosecution that will deter people from violence. When people have empathy towards others, being able to experience others' feelings as their own, they will avoid hurting others.
Assault is the intention or threat to use violence. Battery is the actual use of this violence. Depending on jurisdiction, assault is sometimes also defined as the use of violence. As a first approximation to the distinction between battery and assault:
- The overt behavior of an assault might be A advancing upon B by chasing after him and swinging a fist at his head, while
- That of an act of battery might be A actually striking B.
Battery is often broken down into gradations for the purposes of determining the severity of punishment:
- Simple battery may include any form of non-consensual, harmful, or insulting contact, regardless of the injury caused. Criminal battery requires an intent to inflict an injury on another, as distinguished from a tortuous battery.
- Sexual battery may be defined as non-consensual touching of the intimate parts of another.
- Family violence battery may be limited in its scope between persons within a certain degree of relationship: Statutes with respect to this offense have been enacted in response to increasing awareness of the problem of domestic violence.
- Aggravated battery is generally regarded as a serious offense of felony grade, involving the loss of the victim's limb or some other type of permanent disfigurement of the victim. As successor to the common law crime of mayhem, this is sometimes subsumed in the definition of aggravated assault.
Latin for "guilty act," in assault, this occurs when one person causes another to fear that force is about to be used to cause some degree of personal contact and possible injury. There must be some quality of reasonableness to the apprehension on the part of the victim. Everyday physical contacts such as handshakes or pats on the back are exempted unless the perpetrator is aware of some phobia in the victim. The perpetrator must be able to perform the violent action immediately, otherwise they are guilty of menace or blackmail, rather than assault.
The mens rea (Latin for "guilty mind") is that this fear must have been caused either intentionally or recklessly. A battery is committed when the threatened force actually results in contact to the other and that contact was caused either intentionally or recklessly. This is usually a summary offense but, in some jurisdictions (such as in England and Wales, where the 1988 Criminal Justice Act applies), it can be an additional charge on an indictment.
Some jurisdictions have laws based on the level of harm caused to the victim. There are generally two distinctions: Actual bodily harm (ABH) and grievous bodily harm (GBH). ABH is distinguished from the more serious charge of grievous bodily harm both on the level of intent required, and on the severity of the injury (self-evidently, the severity may provide evidence of the intent).
The Crown Prosecution Service provide examples of factors which may indicate intent; for example "a repeated or planned attack; deliberate selection of a weapon or adaptation of an article to cause injury, such as breaking a glass before an attack; making prior threats; and using an offensive weapon against, or kicking the victim's head." All these examples would distinguish the crime as GBH, rather than ABH.
Justifications for assault and battery
Although the range and precise application of defenses varies between jurisdictions, the following represents a list of the defenses that may apply to all levels of assault.
Consent may be a complete or partial defense to assault. In some jurisdictions, most notably England, it is not a defense where the degree of injury is severe, as long as there is no legally recognized good reason for the assault. This can have important consequences when dealing with issues such as consensual sadomasochistic sexual activity. Legally recognized good reasons for consent include; surgery, activities within the rules of a game, bodily adornment, or horseplay. However, any activity outside the rules of the game is not legally recognized as a defense of consent.
Arrest and other official acts
Police officers and court officials have a general power to use force for the purpose of effecting an arrest or generally carrying out their official duties. Thus, a court officer taking possession of goods under a court order may use force if reasonably necessary. In Scottish Law, however, consent is not a defense for assault.
In some jurisdictions, caning and other forms of corporal punishment are a part of the culture. Evidently, if it is a state-administered punishment, such as in Singapore, the officers who physically administer the punishment have immunity. Some states also permit the use of less severe punishment for children in school and at home by parents. In English law, the 2004 Children Act limits the availability of the lawful correction defense to common assault under the 1988 Criminal Justice Act.
Self-defense and defense of others may be defenses to liability. They usually require that force was necessary and the degree of force was reasonable.
Prevention of crime
Prevention of a crime is another defense for the threat or actual use of physical force. This may or may not involve self defense, since the crime being prevented could be an assault or it could be a crime that does not involve the use of personal violence.
Defense of property
Some states allow force to be used in defense of property, to prevent damage either in its own right, or under one or both of the preceding classes of defense in that a threat or attempt to damage property might be considered a crime.
Depending on the severity of the assault, there is a great range of penalties. For civil assault or battery, the penalty is damages, the amount of which in most cases is determined by a jury, based on the harm done to the plaintiff. The court may also award punitive damages to punish the defendant for wrongful behavior.
Simple criminal assault or battery can carry penalties even as minimal as a fine. Beyond that can be penalties of a few months in prison up to life imprisonment for the most grievous sexual or physical assaults. Aggravated assault and the extent of the harm committed to the victim are the determining factors in sentencing.