California law recognizes a number of aggravating factors that can make assault a more serious crime or, in the most egregious cases, result in more severe charges. One of these situations is when an act of assault is committed through the use of certain dangerous chemicals.
According to California Penal Code 244, the crime of assault with caustic or flammable substances can be treated as a felony. This is in contrast to “simple assault,” a misdemeanor. Assault with caustic chemicals often carries penalties even more severe than assault on a public official.
What Chemicals Count as Caustic Chemicals Under the Law?
Caustic chemicals are broadly defined as chemicals that can burn living tissue. In specific, the law mentions caustic chemicals, corrosive substances, flammable substances, and vitriol. The court has wide leeway to determine what does and does not constitute a caustic chemical.
In general, all of the following may be defined as caustic chemicals:
- Chlorine and other pool maintenance chemicals
- Various cleaning chemicals, such as bleach
- Battery acid
- Any strong acid or strong alkaline chemical, by itself or in a mixture
Likewise, common fuels and accelerants like lighter fluid and gasoline, which can be ignited and cause burns, can be classified under the law’s definition. These are just a few basic flammable substances. The statutory text highlights gasoline, petroleum products, and flammable liquids having a flashpoint of 150 degrees Fahrenheit or less.
Many caustic and flammable chemicals have ordinary household uses or are easily accessible for industrial purposes. Because the danger posed by these chemicals can only be reduced so much through regulation, the legal system looks harshly upon their use for criminal purposes.
What Are the Elements of Assault with Caustic Chemicals or Flammable Substances?
In a general sense, all elements of a crime defined by statute must be present for that criminal charge to be applied. If some elements are present but not others, a different crime may be at issue. More serious crimes generally have more elements within their definition.
Let’s look at the different elements piece by piece to understand them better.
The definition of assault with caustic chemicals begins:
“The defendant willfully and maliciously ...”
Willfully means that the accused person acted on purpose or intentionally. If another person comes into contact with and is injured by caustic chemicals, but it was accidental or unintended, this does not meet the definition of this kind of assault.
Maliciously means that the person undertook the act with unlawful intention to cause injury or other harm to somebody (to disturb, annoy, or defraud them, for example.) This opens up another broad category of criminal defenses.
The definition continues:
“...placed, threw or caused to be placed or thrown ...”
Placed, threw: These indicate intentional physical actions broadly defined to indicate any type of physical activity that may result in the harm being carried out. Intent is the most significant element here – if a person willfully and maliciously intends to do harm, the specific action that was performed (pouring, placing, throwing, etc.) is usually not significant to a court ruling.
Caused to be placed or thrown: The idea of “causing” something to occur can be difficult for defendants and others to understand. It goes back to the idea that exactly how an act was carried out does not necessarily change its legal significance.
For example, if a defendant fills a water balloon with acid and gives it to a third party, it is that defendant – not necessarily the third party – who can be found responsible for assault with a caustic chemical, particularly if the third party had been deceived into the activity.
Most cases involve straightforward accusations of physical acts. Under those circumstances, causation remains simple. In more complex cases, however, it may be possible to construct a legal defense on this basis, as it introduces doubt about “willful and malicious” conduct.
The definition continues:
“... upon the person of another ...”
In legal parlance, another’s “person” consists of their physical body, clothing, and immediate personal bubble. An effective way to think about the “person” is to consider the case of a car collision. In an accident, one would not usually say “his car hit my car,” but rather, “he hit me.”
In order for someone to suffer bodily harm as a result of assault with a caustic substance, that substance generally comes in contact with the alleged victim’s body. With that in mind, the facts are usually clear and there is no need to worry unduly about this part of the statute.
The definition continues:
“... any vitriol, corrosive acid, flammable substance ...”
Vitriol is a now-archaic term most defendants have only come across in literature. It refers to sulfuric acid, which is used in the manufacture of fertilizers, industrial chemicals, detergents, dyes, explosives, and drugs. It is one of the most common items used in cases of assault with a caustic chemical, not only in the United States but throughout many areas of the world.
“... or caustic chemical of any nature ...”
Laws are often written so that future, unforeseen circumstances can be processed in accordance with the law’s intent – what is often called the “spirit of the law.” We can see that here in that caustic chemicals of any nature are encompassed under the legal definition. This makes the law exhaustive, rather than limiting it to a subset of caustic chemicals legislators can define.
The definition goes on:
“ ... with the intent to ...”
Again, intent is one of the most important elements in demonstrating to a court whether or not this charge is appropriate. Someone can factually cause harm to another using caustic chemicals but avoid this specific charge for a variety of reasons:
- An accident took place – harm occurred, but it was not intentional
- A physical confrontation occurred, but the defendant was not aware of the chemicals
- The alleged victim took an action which caused him or her to be harmed by chemicals
The statute continues:
“ ... injure the flesh or disfigure the body ...”
Read in context, the accused must have the intent to “injure the flesh or disfigure the body.” This raises more questions about an accused person’s awareness of the chemicals and decision-making capabilities at the time of the alleged act. To give one example, dumping chemicals on the floor to distract or evade pursuit would not meet the statutory definition of assault with caustic chemicals, even where it can be proven that the accused was involved in a separate criminal act.
“ ... of that person ...”
This refers again to the alleged victim. The statute nears its conclusion with:
“... is punishable by imprisonment ...”
Felonies and other serious crimes that do not rise to the level of federal jurisdiction generally carry with them a sentence in state prison. If convicted of assault with a caustic chemical or flammable substance, a prison term of 2-4 years is possible.
As with many other crimes, the court has wide leeway to determine the length of the sentence. A number of mitigating factors could be present that will lead to a lighter sentence, even if there are other charges to be considered alongside the alleged assault.
In addition, convicts incarcerated in California state prison may be eligible for reduced sentences (“time off for good behavior”) once a portion of their sentence is carried out. In some situations, it may be possible to serve as little as a few months for this type of assault conviction.
In addition, a fine of up to $10,000 may be levied.
Common Defenses Against Assault with Caustic Chemicals Charges
If you or someone you care about has been faced with a count of caustic chemical assault, it is imperative to speak to a criminal defense attorney as soon as you can. Only a qualified criminal defense lawyer can evaluate the facts of the case and determine an effective legal strategy.
It may be possible to have charges reduced or dismissed for a number of reasons, including evidence tampering, police misconduct, and more. However, it is also essential to have a sound legal defense that will address the central elements of the charges.
Some of the most common legal defenses for assault with caustic chemicals include:
You were not acting willfully or maliciously
A wide range of accidental or unintentional circumstances can appear to be assault at first glance. If you cause someone to come into contact with caustic chemicals by accident, you cannot be prosecuted under California Penal Code 244.
This remains true no matter how severe the alleged victim’s injuries are or how negligent the accused person may have been in the events leading up to the injury. An accidental injury can even take place during the commission of a criminal act and not violate Penal Code 244.
In cases where an injury took place due to accident or oversight, a lesser charge is often sought. A charge like battery is much easier to contend with in court. Dramatically reduced penalties, jail time, and fines may apply.
You were attempting to defend yourself or others
If you feel you are in danger of death or injury, actions which may meet the legal definition of caustic chemical assault may be considered lawful. In general, the law empowers you to meet threats with reasonable force.
An otherwise law-abiding citizen who comes to the aid of another person could also expect to be exempt from caustic chemical assault charges. The person you are trying to defend does not need to be known to you in order to claim self-defense.
California’s “Stand Your Ground” law does not require you to escape a threat by leaving the scene if you are able to do so. You may use reasonable force to protect yourself and you may even pursue an attacker if necessary until the threat has passed.
For more information, see California Criminal Jury Instructions #505, #506, and #3470.
Talk to a Criminal Defense Attorney if You Are Accused of Caustic Chemical Assault
In Long Beach, CA, caustic chemical assault is considered a serious crime. Defendants should consult promptly with a Long Beach criminal defense attorney who can help them protect their legal rights. The sooner you speak to an attorney, the better it will be for your case.
An experienced criminal defense attorney is vital not only for your legal well-being, but for your peace of mind. Your defense attorney can take action right away to make this complicated and difficult time much easier for you – for example, by taking over communication with the court and anyone else who may be involved with the case.
In the long run, this helps to ensure you do not accidentally undermine your legal prospects.
When you contact a lawyer from Long Beach Criminal Attorneys, you will have the opportunity to discuss your case in detail. We are dedicated to ensuring you can make an informed decision about your legal defense, so we will be glad to answer any questions you may have. It’s crucial to choose a lawyer you feel confident working with.
If you decide to work with us, we can lay out next steps and begin pursuing your case immediately. We support our clients every step of the way with a proven history of aggressive criminal defense. Our goal is nothing short of completely exonerating you from all accusations. Our impeccable record of criminal case success means we have the knowledge and skills to help you.
To find out more, call Long Beach Criminal Attorney: 562-308-7807.