The crimes of assault, assault and battery, and aggravated assault all involve intentional harm inflicted on one person by another. Any crime involving a physical attack (or even the threat of an attack) is usually classified as an assault, a battery, or both. Depending on the seriousness of the attack (or the dangerousness of the weapon used), these acts can rise to the level of aggravated assault. And more than one-sided attacks can constitute assault. Fighting can lead to an assault charge, even when two people have mutually agreed to fight.
Read on to learn what defines assault and battery, aggravated assault, and related crimes. (To learn about assault and battery as intentional torts that can form the basis of a civil lawsuit, check out Assault and Battery as Personal Injury Claims.)
Assault is sometimes defined as any intentional act that causes another person to fear that she is about to suffer physical harm. This definition recognizes that placing another person in fear of imminent bodily harm is itself an act deserving of punishment, even if the victim of the assault is not physically harmed. This definition also allows police officers to intervene and make an arrest without waiting for the assaulter to actually strike the victim.
Assault Case Example: Snider is walking down a city street carrying a bottle of soda. Mantle, walking along the same street in the opposite direction, sees Snider approaching. Because of Snider's reputation as a hot-head, Mantle immediately becomes fearful that Snider will swing the bottle at him when their paths cross. As they walk past each other, nothing happens. Snider has not committed an assault. Snider has a right to carry a bottle of soda in public, and Mantle's fear of being hit was not the result of Snyder's intentionally threatening behavior. But now assume that, as they draw closer, Snider draws back his fist and tells Mantle "You're going to pay for stealing my collection of baseball pennants." As Snider begins to swing his fist in Mantle's direction, Mantle sprints away and escapes harm. Here, Snider has committed an assault. His intentional conduct placed Mantle in reasonable fear of immediate bodily harm.
Historically, battery and assault were considered separate crimes, with battery requiring that the aggressor physically strike or offensively touch the victim. In that way, a battery was a “completed” assault. Many modern statutes don't bother to distinguish between the two crimes, as evidenced by the fact that the phrase "assault and battery" has become as common as "salt and pepper." These days, statutes often refer to crimes of actual physical violence as assaults.
The criminal laws of many states classify assaults as either simple or aggravated, according to the gravity of the harm that occurs—or is likely to occur if the assaulter follows through and strikes the victim. Aggravated assault is a felony that may involve an assault committed with a weapon or with the intent to commit a serious crime, such as rape. (Some assault laws name the aggravating factor—for example, “assault with a deadly weapon.”) An assault may also be defined as aggravated if it occurs in the course of a relationship that the legal system regards as worthy of special protection (see "Aggravated Assault Case Example 2" below for more discussion). In the absence of factors such as these, the crime tends to be simple assault, a misdemeanor.
As an alternative to classifying assaults as either simple or aggravated, some states recognize the different levels of harm that they can cause by classifying them as first (most serious), second, or third degree (less serious) assaults.
Aggravated Assault Case Example 1: Alyssa is walking alone late at night when a man suddenly jumps in front of her and drags her into the bushes. The man strikes her a couple times and begins to rip at her clothes. Fortunately, Alyssa strikes the attacker with a rock and runs away to safety. The attacker is guilty of aggravated assault because the circumstances indicate that he assaulted Alyssa with the intent of raping her.
Aggravated Assault Case Example 2: A male nurse in a nursing home facility fondles an elderly female patient. The nurse may be convicted of aggravated assault in states that have enacted special statutes to protect elderly or mentally ill patients against violence by caregivers.
To get an idea of what a statute on assault looks like, take a look at this excerpt from Mississippi Code (Section 97-3-7), which defines the crime of simple assault. As you'll see, simple assault in Mississippi encompasses both acts that cause actual bodily injury and acts that cause fear of imminent serious bodily harm.
(To learn more about assault and battery, and for information about the law your state, see our Assault and Battery section.)
(1) A person is guilty of simple assault if he (i) attempts to cause or purposely, knowingly or recklessly causes bodily injury to another; or (ii) negligently causes bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon or other means likely to produce death or serious bodily harm; or (iii) attempts by physical menace to put another in fear of imminent serious bodily harm; and, upon conviction, he shall be punished by a fine of not more than Five Hundred Dollars ($500.00) or by imprisonment in the county jail for not more than six (6) months, or both.
If you’ve been arrested or charged with a crime, consult an experienced criminal defense attorney. A knowledgeable lawyer will be able to fully explain the law in your state and advise you of your options. You can use Nolo's trusted Lawyer Directory to find an experienced criminal law attorney near you.