Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

Battery, in simple terms, refers to the intentional touching or striking of another person against their will or causing bodily harm. Imagine someone pushing you or slapping your face without your consent; that act could be considered battery. This crime does not require the victim to be injured; just the act of unwanted physical contact is enough. However, it’s important to differentiate between accidental and intentional touches. If someone accidentally bumps into you on a crowded bus, that’s not battery. The touch must be intentional and unwanted.

The Harm Behind Battery

Laws against battery exist to protect our personal boundaries and physical safety. At the core of battery laws is the respect for individual autonomy—the principle that each person has a right to personal space and freedom from unwanted physical contact. By penalizing those who infringe upon these rights, the legislature aims to create an environment where individuals can coexist peacefully without fear of physical harm.

The harm isn’t just physical. Psychological and emotional scars can result from battery, sometimes lasting much longer than any physical injury. The law recognizes that the emotional toll from an unwanted touch or strike can be profound, impacting a person’s sense of security, well-being, and overall mental health.

Classification of Battery

In most legal codes, battery is classified as a personal crime because it involves direct harm or threat against an individual. Depending on the jurisdiction and the severity of the offense, battery may be categorized as a misdemeanor or a felony. Enhanced penalties can be applied if the battery results in serious injury or if the victim belongs to a protected class (e.g., police officers, elderly individuals).

Battery’s Place in Broader Criminal Categories

Battery fits primarily under the category of “crimes against persons” as it directly harms or threatens harm to individuals. While it involves personal contact, it is distinct from sexual crimes, which are offenses of a sexual nature. Unlike property crimes where the main objective is to harm one’s possessions or deprive ownership, battery is a direct invasion of a person’s physical boundaries.

History of the Offense

The concept of battery has deep historical roots. Ancient codes, like the Code of Hammurabi from Babylon (circa 1754 BCE), had provisions dealing with personal injuries, emphasizing society’s age-old recognition of the need to protect bodily integrity.

However, the most comprehensive discussions come from the English common law, especially from legal scholars like Sir William Blackstone. In his seminal work, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Blackstone wrote on the “offence of battery”, detailing its historical elements. He defined it as the “unlawful beating of another”. The intent was critical, meaning it was vital for the act to be willful rather than accidental.

Under English common law, battery was distinguished from assault. While assault referred to the threat or attempt to cause harm, battery described the actual harmful or offensive contact. The essence was in the violation of personal space and boundaries, reinforcing the sanctity of personal security.

As societies and legal systems evolved, the understanding of battery became more refined, acknowledging not just physical harm but the broader implications of personal violations. Modern legal interpretations owe much to these foundational views from ancient codes and Blackstone’s detailed examinations.

Modern Penal Code: Definition of Battery

The Modern Penal Code (MPC), which many states use as a guideline for drafting their criminal statutes, offers a nuanced definition of battery. According to the MPC, battery is typically defined under the broader category of assault. Specifically, Section 211.1(1)(a) of the MPC states that a person is guilty of battery (termed as assault in MPC) if he “attempts to cause or purposely, knowingly, or recklessly causes bodily injury to another.” This means that intent plays a significant role in determining whether an act constitutes battery.

Moreover, the MPC acknowledges varying degrees of battery based on the severity of harm and intent behind the act. For instance, Section 211.1(2) elaborates on more serious forms of battery where serious bodily injury is caused with specific intent.

Defenses to Battery in the MPC

The MPC, in its understanding of human behavior and circumstances, lists certain defenses that can be invoked in cases of battery:

  1. Consent: Section 2.11(2) of the MPC notes that consent is a valid defense to battery unless the bodily injury is serious or the act is deemed offensive by societal standards.
  2. Self-defense: A person may use force against another if they believe it’s immediately necessary to protect themselves. However, the amount of force should be proportional to the perceived threat, as outlined in Section 3.04.
  3. Defense of Others: Similar to self-defense, a person can use force to protect someone else if they believe that person is at immediate risk of battery, as mentioned in Section 3.05.
  4. Parental Discipline: Section 3.08 allows parents or guardians to use force for the purpose of safeguarding or promoting the welfare of a minor, including preventing or punishing misconduct. However, this doesn’t give free rein to cause harm.

Distinguishing Degrees of Battery

Differentiating between the various degrees of battery is crucial in understanding the severity of the crime and the corresponding legal repercussions. Broadly speaking, battery’s degrees shed light on the intent behind the act and the severity of the injury inflicted upon the victim.

First-degree battery often involves intentional and premeditated acts leading to severe harm or injury to the victim. This might include acts where the offender uses a deadly weapon, resulting in severe physical injury or disfigurement. Due to its heinous nature, first-degree battery typically incurs the most stringent legal penalties, such as longer incarceration periods or higher fines.

Second-degree battery, while still severe, might not be premeditated but causes significant harm. This degree usually involves intentional striking that results in noticeable physical harm, such as broken bones or extensive bruising, but might not lead to long-term impairment. The penalties for second-degree battery are less severe than the first degree but are still substantial, reflecting the seriousness of the crime.

In contrast, third-degree battery often involves lesser harm or injury to the victim. While the act is intentional, the resulting harm might be minor, like a small cut or a bruise. It’s worth noting that the distinction here is based on the outcome and not the potential risk; for instance, threatening someone with a dangerous weapon might lead to higher degrees of battery even if no injury occurs. Penalties for third-degree battery are generally milder, with shorter jail terms or fines.

Aggravated battery is another classification, usually signifying an added element of severity to the act. This could be due to the involvement of a deadly weapon, battery against a protected class of individuals (like law enforcement officers), or battery resulting in especially grievous harm. The categorization as “aggravated” amplifies the crime’s gravity and, subsequently, the associated legal penalties.

Hypothetical Scenario: Battery in an Arkansas Bar Fight

In the heart of Little Rock, Arkansas, at a local watering hole, Bubba and Leroy find themselves locked in a spirited disagreement. As voices escalate and tensions rise, Leroy, driven by emotion, tosses his drink onto Bubba and lands a stinging slap across his face. This act, while spontaneous and resulting in no grave injury, could still expose Leroy to charges under Arkansas Code §5-13-203, which defines third-degree battery. Specifically, his actions could be seen as purposely causing physical injury to another, even if the injury is relatively minor.

The night, however, takes a darker turn. Bubba, seething from the humiliation and discomfort, breaks a beer bottle on the table’s edge and lunges at Leroy. Though Leroy manages to deflect the strike, he still sustains a significant cut on his forearm. Meanwhile, not to be subdued, Leroy retaliates with a series of blows, leaving Bubba with bruises and possibly a fractured rib. This escalation can now be construed under Arkansas Code §5-13-202, second-degree battery, given the gravity of the injuries and the evident intent to cause harm.

If Bubba’s bottle attack had resulted in serious, life-threatening injuries to Leroy, the charges could escalate to first-degree battery as per Arkansas Code §5-13-201. Moreover, Bubba’s choice of a broken bottle, a dangerous instrument in this context, potentially transforms the altercation into an aggravated battery incident, drawing even sterner penalties under Arkansas law.

Summary of Elements of Battery

  1. Mens Rea (Mental State): Intent to cause bodily injury, as stated in Section 211.1(1)(a). This can be purposeful, knowing, or reckless.
  2. Actus Reus (Act): The actual physical act of causing or attempting to cause injury.
  3. Concurrence: The mental intent (Mens Rea) and the act (Actus Reus) must occur simultaneously.
  4. Causation: The defendant’s action must be a direct cause of the victim’s injury.
  5. Harm: Physical injury, whether minor or serious, to the victim.
  6. Attendant Circumstances: Any other factors or conditions present during the commission of the offense, like the use of a weapon.


Battery is a criminal offense characterized by intentional and unwanted physical contact or harm inflicted upon another person. In simple terms, it involves striking or touching someone against their will, even if the act doesn’t result in injury. Such laws aim to protect personal boundaries, ensuring that individuals can live without fear of unwarranted physical harm. Psychological and emotional scars can arise from battery, highlighting the importance of these protective statutes.

Historically, the battery has roots in ancient legal codes, including the Code of Hammurabi. Its definition and understanding have evolved over the years, especially under English common law. Sir William Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, played a significant role in shaping its legal interpretation, differentiating battery from assault based on the actual infliction of harm versus the mere threat of it.

The Modern Penal Code (MPC) generally categorizes battery under assault. According to the MPC, a person commits battery if they attempt or cause bodily injury to another, either purposefully, knowingly, or recklessly. This definition emphasizes the offender’s intent. The MPC also details specific defenses, such as consent, self-defense, and defense of others.

Furthermore, the degree of battery—whether first, second, or third—depends on factors like the perpetrator’s intent and the severity of the inflicted injury. First-degree battery is the most serious, often involving premeditated acts resulting in grave harm or the use of a deadly weapon. Second-degree battery still involves significant harm but might not be premeditated. In contrast, third-degree battery often results in minor injuries. The term “aggravated battery” describes incidents with added severity, such as the use of a weapon or significant harm.

Battery, with its multiple degrees and defenses, embodies the legal system’s nuanced approach to dealing with physical harm, ensuring that perpetrators face justice proportional to their actions.

Modification History

File Created:  07/17/2018

Last Modified:  10/10/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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