Assault (law) | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction / Criminal Law

At common law, an assault was an “intentional act by one person that creates an apprehension in another of an imminent harmful or offensive contact.”

At common law, assault was a criminal offense that was defined as an intentional act by one person that creates an apprehension in another of an imminent harmful or offensive contact. The apprehension that the victim experiences must be reasonable, and the perpetrator must have had the ability to carry out the threatened act. It is important to note that assault does not require physical contact; rather, it is the threat or apprehension of harm that is the key element of the offense.

In order to prove assault under common law, the prosecutor must establish that the defendant had the intent to cause apprehension of an imminent harmful or offensive contact. This means that the defendant must have intended to create the apprehension of harm or offense in the victim’s mind. The defendant’s conduct must also have been the direct cause of the victim’s apprehension.

Under common law, assault could be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the severity of the conduct and the harm caused to the victim. However, the majority of states have abolished the distinction between assault and battery, which is a related but separate offense. In these states, the term “assault” is typically used to refer to the intentional creation of an apprehension of harm, while the term “battery” is used to refer to the intentional infliction of physical harm.

Modern statutes vary in their definition of assault but generally require an intentional or reckless act that causes the victim to reasonably fear imminent bodily harm. Some statutes also require a physical component, such as an attempted or actual battery, while others do not.

In addition to criminal liability, assault can also give rise to civil liability in the form of a lawsuit for damages. Victims of assault may be able to recover compensation for medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

Overall, assault is a serious criminal offense that can result in significant legal consequences. While the specifics of the offense may vary depending on the jurisdiction, the common law elements of an intentional act creating a reasonable apprehension of imminent harm or offense remain the foundation of the offense.

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Last Modified: 04/10/2023


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