California Assault Law - PC 290 PC

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California law considers most criminal assaults misdemeanor offenses. However, even in these cases, a person convicted of assault can face six months behind bars and fines of up to $1,000. There are also times when the facts of a case will upgrade the offense to a felony. 

Simple assaults involve an attempt to injure another person unlawfully and violently. The suspect will have to have had the ability to carry out the attempted violence for the court to find that individual guilty. 

People facing allegations of an assault should understand what consequences they may face if convicted. Of course, as with any crime, the accused is innocent until proven guilty. There are potential defenses or other strategies that can help avoid or reduce the charges, but the right course of action depends on each case's specific facts. A California criminal defense lawyer can help the defendant find a strategy that will serve them in their particular case. 

Examples of Criminal Assault

Criminal assault is a separate crime from battery. While battery involves the unlawful and violent use of force against another person, assault is the attempt to use such force. In a way, an assault is a failed attempt at committing battery. 

Imagine two neighbors get into a fight because one of the neighbor's dogs is barking. If the neighbor who is angry about the noise throws a rock from his garden at the other neighbor and misses, the attempt to strike the other person with a rock is a potential form of assault. If the neighbor had a better aim and the rock hit its target, the crime would be a battery. Similarly, if the angry neighbor attempted to punch the other person, but the target ducked and avoided the blow, that would be an assault. 

In each of these cases, the neighbor who threw the rock could face conviction, but the court would have to prove the following elements required by California Penal Code 240:

  • The perpetrator acted in such a way that an application of force against another person was likely
  • The perpetrator engaged in the action willfully
  • The perpetrator knew, or a reasonable person should have known, that the actions would probably and directly cause an application of force to the other person
  • The perpetrator could apply force against the other individual

The law uses the language "application of force" to refer to the action's effect rather than harm. The act does not need to cause injuries. The potential impact need only be harmful or offensive. If the perpetrator behaved rudely but in a way that was unlikely to injure, the action is still an assault.

Words alone do not constitute an assault, although if the person threatens another individual, that may qualify as a separate crime, criminal threats. 

Intent and Criminal Acts

The statute requires that the actions are willful. The intent is an essential aspect of many crimes. If the perpetrator were throwing a rock to get it out of their yard and nearly hit their neighbor, that would not be assault. The intent to apply force is necessary. 

Additionally, the intent to scare someone when there is a good chance of applying force will also qualify. For example, if a person threw a rock near the person with whom they were angry, but there was a good chance they could have struck the individual, that too would potentially qualify. 

Types of Assaults and Related Penalties

As mentioned above, simple assault without aggravating factors is a misdemeanor crime that may result in six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. There are several ways in which the penalties might become more severe. 

Assault on Emergency Responders and Police Officers: If the perpetrator commits an assault against a police officer or other professionals in specific specified categories, the penalties can increase to up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine. Among the professionals included in the law are police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and other emergency responders. Animal control officers and parking control officers also qualify. 

Assault on a Public Official: Assaulting a judge, prosecutor, government official, or public defender may lead to misdemeanor or felony charges. The sentence can include one year in jail for misdemeanor convictions and up to four years for felony convictions. 

Assault with a Deadly Weapon: Assault penalties increase when the perpetrator uses a deadly weapon, such as a knife or gun. If the assault would likely have led to severe bodily harm, such as if someone tried to run a person over with their car, there is also an argument for upgrading the crime. 

Individuals convicted of assault with a deadly weapon may face misdemeanor or felony charges. In misdemeanor cases, the sentence is a maximum of one year in jail. If the court convicts the defendant of a felony, the penalty can include four years in prison. 

Assault with Caustic Chemicals: Assaulting a person with caustic chemicals, such as acid, is considered a felony. Courts may sentence a person to up to four years in prison for such crimes. 

Assault and Battery in California

As mentioned, in California, a person who touches someone in a harmful or offensive manner commits a battery. The intent element for assault and battery is the same, but in the case of a battery, the perpetrator's attempt to make contact succeeds. 

Battery need not cause harm, though. If a battery does cause severe injury, the consequences are more serious. A prosecutor may try battery with significant bodily injury as a misdemeanor or a felony. Felony battery with serious bodily injury may lead to a four-year prison term. 

Defending Against Battery Charges

The correct defense in a case will depend on the facts. A California criminal defense lawyer can work with a defendant to develop the right strategy for avoiding a conviction. Some common defenses are as follows:

  • False Accusations: Because there is no requirement that anyone suffered harm in an assault case, there is an opportunity for accusers to make false claims. Such accusations could be a mistake of identity or carried out by someone seeking vengeance. 
  • Lack of Intent: If the alleged assault was simply an accident, one of the charges' required elements will not exist. 
  • Self-Defense: If the alleged victim were attacking the defendant or another person, the defendant's actions would be legally defensible. It is important to note that self-defense and defense of others only apply when the perpetrator poses an imminent physical threat. A verbal assault will not justify a physical defense. 
  • Lack of Ability to Inflict Force: If the alleged assault occurred when the defendant was too far away or otherwise physically prevented from causing harm or force, then the prosecutors will be missing an essential element needed to convict. 

Even if no defenses apply, a California criminal defense lawyer will work with the defendant to find a strategy to minimize the impact of the charges. 

Civil Cases and Assaults

Even in cases where there is not enough evidence to convict a person of an assault, the alleged victim may have a case for civil damages against the accused. Anyone facing such charges should speak to an attorney about their options.