How Is "Assault" Defined in California?
California Penal Code Section 240 criminalizes "assault," which it defines as the attempt to commit "battery," which itself is the unlawful infliction of bodily harm upon another person by means of force or fear.
Assault, thus, is distinct from the crime of battery, even though an act of battery automatically presupposes an act of assault.
The "elements" of the crime, which the prosecutor must prove to gain a conviction, and which give us a fuller definition of "assault" in California, are as follows:
- You committed an act that involved the attempt to do something that would likely have resulted in the bodily injury or death of another person.
- You did this act "willfully."
- You knew, or any reasonable person should have known, that this act would be likely to harm another person physically.
- You used force or fear in committing the act.
- The victim had a reasonable fear of imminent bodily harm based upon your actions.
- You had the ability, at the time, to carry out the act of battery that you attempted.
Note that an attempt, but not a successful one, to apply physical force to the alleged victim in a harmful way must have taken place for it to be assault. This attempted application of force need not have been direct, however. It could have been via an instrument or weapon of some sort.
"Willfully" here does not mean that you purposefully or knowingly broke the law or even that your intention was to harm the other person, but simply that what you did, you did on purpose (it was not an accident), and this willful act itself, in fact, was likely to cause bodily harm if it had been successful.
And, in fact, it is even possible to be convicted of assault where you did not even intend to apply force to the victim, if your actions were likely to result in an application of force. Thus, reckless disregard for the safety of others is not a defense against an assault charge.
Finally, if you actually touched the victim, then it would be assault and battery instead of merely assault. Even if no actual harm occurred and the touching was very slight, it can still be charged as battery.
Possible Penalties for an Assault Conviction
Under California PC 240 (assault), you would normally be charged with a misdemeanor crime. That is for "simple assault," without any aggravating factors or repeat offenses complicating matters. In that case, possible penalties include:
- Up to 6 months in jail
- Summary probation
- A fine as high as $1,000
But there are a number of ways that an assault sentence can be "enhanced." Mainly, this is a matter of who the assault was committed against. There are certain "specially protected classes" of persons that, if you assault, you get a higher than "normal" penalty. These include:
- A law enforcement officer.
- A firefighter.
- An emergency or rescue worker.
- A doctor or nurse.
- A lifeguard.
- An traffic or parking control officer.
- An animal control officer.
But note that it is only when these persons are on duty that their protected status applies. If the defendant committed assault against any such person while they were performing their respective duties, and if he/she knew or reasonably can be expected to have known, of their status, then the penalty is enhanced to up to 12 months in jail and a $2,000 fine.
Common Defense Strategies Against an Assault Charge
When you are facing serious jail time, large fines, the creation or aggravation of a criminal record, and the social stigma of an assault conviction, you cannot afford to rely on a novice to defend you. At Long Beach Criminal Defense Attorneys, we have many years of hands-on, real-life experience in defending against every sort of assault charge in California.
We understand how to build your defense from the ground up, based on the specific facts of your case, and never just use a one-size-fits-all approach. And over our years of service to the Long Beach, CA, community, we have used all of the following defense strategies to great effect:
- Lack of Intent
In order to be convicted of PC 240 (assault), it must be shown that you acted "willfully," or "intentionally" in what you did. If it was a matter of an accident or a misunderstanding, then you are not guilty. At Long Beach Criminal Defense Attorneys, we know how to demonstrate a lack of intent and bring it forcefully to the attention of the court and jury.
- Lack of Ability
Even if the prosecution can show you intentionally acted and tried to commit an act of battery, if it can be shown that you were physically incapable of carrying out that act and inflicting physical harm on the victim, then you cannot be convicted of assault in a California court.
- Self Defense
If your actions, however threatening, were done in self-defense, then they were lawful and do not constitute "assault" legally. However, for this defense to work, you must have been, or reasonably believed yourself to be, in imminent danger of bodily harm from the alleged victim. And you cannot have used excessive force, but only how much force was needed to neutralize the danger. And, finally, words alone (even highly offense or "fighting words") are not enough to justify a self-defense argument.
- Defense of Others
This defense is just like self-defense except that the person in, or believed to have been in, imminent danger of physical harm, was not you but another person you were trying to protect.
- False Accusation
It is very common for false charges of assault to be filed. Many times, someone will fabricate a story or change the facts of what really happened, out of jealousy or a desire for revenge. This is especially common with former romantic partners and others formerly in a close relationship. We at Long Beach Criminal Defense Attorneys know how to get to the bottom of a false accusation and expose it in court for what it is.
- Mistaken Identity
In cases where an assault was committed by a stranger, or in a dimly lit place, or where the perpetrator was disguised, it is very easy for a mis-identification to take place. If testimony that you were seen is suspect, we will show the weak points of the prosecution's argument.
There are many other charges that can come up in an assault case. Some of these are charged along with or instead of assault, and some of them are often used as a reduced charge in a plea bargain.
Related offenses that may be relevant to your assault defense case include:
- Battery (PC 242)
Since battery always involves assault and since the difference legally is merely whether or not the defendant touched the victim, it is relatively common for battery to be initially charged but for a defense attorney to often get a reduction to an assault charge. And if no injury or serious injury occurred, the chances of a reduction from battery to assault could be higher.
A misdemeanor battery charge is punishable by up to 6 months in county jail and a $2,000 fine. Battery causing "serious bodily injury," however, can be a felony and get you 2 to 4 years in state prison.
- Assault on a Public Official (PC 217)
As mentioned above, assaulting a police officer, medical provider, emergency personnel, and certain other classes of individuals will get you an enhanced penalty under PC 240. But it could also lead to a PC 217.1a charge instead, if the assault was done for the purpose of stopping a public official from doing his/her job or to get "revenge" on a public official for any reason. Also, different classes of persons, such as judges, prosecutors, and elected leaders are included as protected under PC 217 than under PC 240.
PC 217 can be a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the circumstances of the case. As a misdemeanor, it is punishable by 12 months in jail; as a felony, it can get you 16 months to 3 years in prison.
- Assault With a Deadly Weapon (PC 245)
Under PC 245, if you commit an assault while using a "deadly weapon," you are subject to stiffer punishment than for a simple assault. A deadly weapon can be a firearm, knife, or any object used in a way capable of inflicting severe injury or death. And PC 245 can be charged if the assault was likely to inflict severe bodily injury even if no weapon but one's own body was used.
PC 245 can be a misdemeanor or felony. As a misdemeanor, it is punishable by 12 months in county jail; as a felony, it can get you 2 to 4 years in state prison.
- Assault With Caustic Chemicals (PC 244)
Under PC 244, committing an assault while threatening to throw caustic chemicals at someone, for the purpose of causing them burns, severe injury, or disfigurement, is a felony crime. It is punishable by 2 to 4 years in state prison.
- Throwing an Object at a Vehicle (Vehicle Code Section 23110)
Under VC 23110, it is a specific crime to throw any object (including liquids) at a vehicle that is located on a public street. It is not necessary that the object actually struck the vehicle or had any good chance of doing so. Since the threat posed can startle a driver and cause an accident, the element of "ability to carry out the attempted action" does not apply to VC 23110 as it does to PC 240 (simple assault).
This is normally a misdemeanor charge, but if the act was capable of producing serious bodily injury, it will be charged as a felony.
- Disturbing the Peace (PC 415)
Sometimes, it may be possible to get an assault charge reduced to disturbing the peace, especially if no one was actually injured, no serious harm was ever likely, and the peace was, in fact, disturbed by a fight that took place in connection with the incident.
Public fighting, excessive noise that disturbs others not on your own property, or provoking others with "fighting words" in a public place, can all count as disturbing the peace.
PC 415 is a misdemeanor, and one that is not punished very severely compared to PC 240 (assault). The maximum penalty is 90 days in county jail. PC 415 could even be a mere infraction in some cases.
Contact Us Today For Help
At Long Beach Criminal Defense Attorneys, we have a long track record of winning all manner of California battery defense cases. We will know how to build you a solid defense and win the best possible outcome to your case, be that a dismissal, acquittal, or a reduced charge or sentence.
To learn more about battery defense or to avail yourself of a free legal consultation, do not hesitate to contact us at (562) 308-7807 24/7/365. Or, feel free to see us at our Long Beach, CA, office.