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Assault and Battery Defenses

The defenses available in assault and battery cases can vary widely depending on the facts and circumstances, mainly because such cases can range from the straight-forward to the extremely complex. However, operating under the assumption that the basic elements of an assault / battery exist in a case (i.e. it is not a case of mistaken identity or some other fundamental error), the following are some possible defenses to assault and battery charges along with a few helpful examples.

Self-defense

Self-defense is probably the most common defense used in assault and battery cases. In order to establish self-defense, an accused must generally show:

  • a threat of unlawful force or harm against them;
  • a real, honest perceived fear of harm to themselves (there must be a reasonable basis for this perceived fear);
  • no harm or provocation on their part; and
  • there was no reasonable chance of retreating or escaping the situation.

Example A: Adam is confronted by Bill, a large, imposing stranger, who immediately begins shouting threats at him and lunging at him with fists raised in a highly threatening manner. Adam is terrified, strikes Bill, and gets away through the nearest exit at his first available opportunity. Adam may be able to successfully argue that he acted only in self-defense under such circumstances.

Example B: Adam runs into Bill and gets into an argument. Bill insults and belittles Adam, at which point Adam insults Bill and threatens to beat him up. Bill then strikes Adam, and Adam retaliates in kind. It would be more difficult for Adam to establish self-defense under these circumstances than those in Example A, because Adam took part in escalating and provoking the fight by threatening Bill.

The doctrine of self-defense has a number of limitations in addition to those outlined above. Simply because someone acts in self-defense does not mean that all bets are off as far as the amount of force that can be used to defend one's self. The force used in self-defense must be reasonable when compared to the threat posed by the victim. Also, even if all the elements outlined above are met, an individual defending themself may still be found guilty of assault/battery if the victim was physically no match for them in the first place (this could be due to size, age, etc.).

Defense of Others

This defense is very similar to that of self-defense, with the only difference being that the individual must have an honest and real perceived fear of harm to another person. The limitations that apply to self-defense apply similarly to defending others, and the accused must have had reasonable grounds for their perceived fear in order to establish this defense.

Defense of Property

A defendant in an assault/battery case may be able to claim that he acted only in defense of his or her property against being invaded or illegally withheld. It is important to note that the availability and extent of this defense varies from state to state, however. Where available, this defense generally allows for an individual to use reasonable force in defense of their property, particularly where a person's own home is involved. The law is more divided on the issue of defending personal property. Generally, if there is some sort of dispute over personal property, the owner is not entitled to use force to retrieve it. On the other hand, if property has been stolen directly from an individual (e.g. by a pickpocket, or purse-snatcher), they may have the right to use reasonable force to recover such property.

Consent

Consent may be available as a defense to an assault/battery charge, depending on the jurisdiction. Where available, if an individual has consented voluntarily to a particular act, then that same act generally cannot be asserted to constitute an assault and battery. But if the extent of the act exceeds the permission provided, it can still provide grounds for assault and battery charges. Also, it should be noted that courts scrutinize consent as a defense closely, and tend to find that harmful actions, even if consented to, violate public policy and should still be punished under assault, battery, or other laws.

Consent as a viable defense is perhaps most often seen as a defense in prosecutions for sexual assault, which is discussed in more detail within FindLaw's Sex Crimes Section.

As can be seen from this list and examples above, assault and battery cases can be very complex and fact-intensive. An experienced criminal defense attorney is often in the best position to analyze all the factors and circumstances in a given case.

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