Assault vs Battery – what’s the difference?

Most people have heard of assault – usually simultaneously with battery (assault and battery). However, these are two distinct crimes that can be charged separately. Assault can most easily be thought of as attempted battery.

Assault usually means someone has created a fear of imminent harm within a reasonable person. Throwing a glass bottle at someone’s head, even if the bottle didn’t strike them, would be a good example of an assault. If the glass actually hit their head, then that would be battery – assault at its completion. Most folks get charged with ‘assault and battery’ because someone usually suffers harm as a result of the assault in question, particularly if there was a physical attack, like a bar fight or brawl.

The state has very specific things it needs to prove in order to show someone is guilty of assault. First, the defendant has to have acted intentionally. An accident would not count; nor would someone being afraid of imminent harm without any intention of the actor. Reasonable apprehension requires the victim to perceive that harm or a threat of harm is aimed at them. A sucker punch to the back of someone’s head may not fulfill this element of ‘reasonable apprehension’ (although it would still be a crime – just not assault). Finally, there must be the threat of physical harm or unwanted contact – even someone spitting on another can be considered assault.

Courts require ‘reasonableness’ to be part of the determination upon whether there was an apprehension of harm. The harm must be reasonable, and a reasonable person should be able to experience said fear. If someone is 50 yards away and threatens to punch you, it probably wouldn’t be a reasonable apprehension of fear. Similarly, if someone only threatens you and does not have any physical action to accompany it, the words alone would not rise to the level of an assault. But aiming a firearm and saying you’re going to shoot someone would be an assault, even if the firearm was a fake, if the person you threatened believed it was real. In a criminal case, the standard of fear is reasonable. If the victim is an easily frightened person, or the firearm was clearly fake (in that it was obviously something like a Nerf gun), then assault is probably not going to be a successful charge in a criminal courtroom.

This would also be considered assault with a deadly weapon in some jurisdictions. Assault contemplates only your hands, or an object that would not otherwise be deadly. Threatening someone with a firearm, a knife, or even a vehicle would all be considered assault with a deadly weapon, which is a much more serious crime.

An assault can be both a criminal and civil case. In either situation, if you are accused of committing an assault, it might be necessary to seek the advice of an attorney. The burden of proof is much higher on the state for a criminal trial, and your liberty could be at stake. You could also face collateral consequences because of a conviction. An attorney should always be consulted if you ever have any questions about the charges or lawsuit you face.

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