We've all heard the phrase on TV or in movies: "You're under arrest for assault and battery." The commonly heard phrase conjures up images of bar fights and parking lot brawls. But what are the legal definitions of the crimes? Did you know there are two separate legal terms of art at play: assault is one and battery is the other? The terms are actually two separate legal concepts with distinct elements. Some states split them up while others combine the offenses.
In most states, an assault/battery is committed when one person: 1) tries to or does physically strike another, or 2) acts in a threatening manner to put another in fear of immediate harm. Many states have a separate category for "aggravated" assault/battery when severe injury or the use of a deadly weapon are involved. Assaults and batteries can also be pursued via civil lawsuits (as opposed to criminal prosecution).
In short, an assault is an attempt or threat to injure another person, while battery is the act of making contact with another person in a harmful or offensive manner. Below is a more in-depth look at both offenses and their elements, which helps explain how these two offenses are so closely tied together.
The definitions for assault vary from state-to-state, but assault is often defined as an attempt to injure to someone else, and in some circumstances can include threats or threatening behavior against others. One common definition would be an intentional attempt, using violence or force, to injure or harm another person. Another straightforward way that assault is sometimes defined is as an attempted battery. Indeed, generally the main distinction between an assault and a battery is that no contact is necessary for an assault, whereas an offensive or illegal contact must occur for a battery.
Assault: Act Requirement
Even though contact is not generally necessary for an assault offense, a conviction for assault still requires a criminal "act". The types of acts that fall into the category of assaults can vary widely, but typically an assault requires an overt or direct act that would put the reasonable person in fear for their safety. Spoken words alone will not be enough of an act to constitute an assault unless the offender backs them up with an act or actions that put the victim in reasonable fear of imminent harm.
Assault: Intent Requirement
In order commit an assault an individual need only have "general intent." What this means is that although someone can't accidentally assault another person, it is enough to show that an offender intended the actions which make up an assault. So, if an individual acts in a way that's considered dangerous to other people that can be enough to support assault charges, even if they didn't intend a particular harm to a particular individual. Moreover, an intent to scare or frighten another person can be enough to establish assault charges, as well.
Although the statutes defining battery will vary by jurisdiction, a typical definition for battery is the intentional offensive or harmful touching of another person without their consent. Under this general definition, a battery offense requires all of the following:
Battery: Intent Requirement
It may come as some surprise that a battery generally does not require any intent to harm the victim (although such intent often exists in battery cases). Instead, a person need only have an intent to contact or cause contact with an individual. Additionally if someone acts in a criminally reckless or negligent manner that results in such contact, it may constitute an assault. As a result, accidentally bumping into someone, offensive as the "victim" might consider it to be, would not constitute a battery.
Battery: Act Requirement
The criminal act required for battery boils down to an offensive or harmful contact. This can range anywhere from the obvious battery where a physical attack such as a punch or kick is involved, to even minimal contact in some cases. Generally, a victim doesn't need to be injured or harmed for a battery to have occurred, so long as an offensive contact is involved. In a classic example, spitting on an individual doesn't physically injure them, but it nonetheless can constitute offensive contact sufficient for a battery. Whether a particular contact is considered offensive is usually evaluated from the perspective of the "ordinary person."
Some jurisdictions have combined assault and battery into a single offense. Because the two offenses are so closely related and often occur together, this should probably come as no surprise. However, the basic concepts underlying the offense remain the same.
More Questions About Assault and Battery? An Attorney Can Help
In an assault or battery case there are important defenses that may apply, especially in cases where two people were involved in a mutually heated exchange. If you or someone you know is concerned about a criminal assault or battery charge, it's critical to contact a criminal defense lawyer as early as possible to better understand the charges and the possible penalties that come with a conviction.
Learn more about these laws on our assault and battery legal answers page.