The law defines assault as a situation in which one person creates a reasonable fear of physical harm in another. Battery, on the other hand, involves actual physical contact -- punching, kicking, or hitting someone with an object. If pepper spray is used during an altercation, authorities might charge assault or battery, or both, as well as aggravating circumstances if serious or permanent injury occurs. Jail time might be the consequence.
Also known as OC, which stands for oleoresin capsicum, pepper spray has been in use in the United States since 1973. It temporarily blinds the victim by causing inflammation and swelling of the eyes and upper respiratory tract. Police and postal workers use it to subdue would-be attackers. Pepper spray is also sold over the counter to the general population as a self-defense weapon. When sprayed directly into the eyes, the effect is painfully incapacitating, but in most cases temporary.
Since it can incapacitate an individual, pepper spray can also, in theory, be used to carry out a criminal act, such as a robbery. In 2012, a pepper-spray robbery that occurred at a truck stop in Weston, Florida, resulted in the death of a bystander who inhaled the substance and fell unconscious to the ground. There have also been many cases of people using pepper spray during street confrontations or domestic altercations.
Assault and battery charges can bring fines and jail time; the penalties depend on the state law sentencing guidelines and the circumstances surrounding the incident. In 2011, a masked Seattle "superhero" going by the name of Phoenix Jones drew assault charges for charging into a sidewalk altercation and pepper-spraying several individuals. The charges could have brought a year in jail, as well as a fine of $5,000, but were later dropped by the Seattle police department. Several states also have more general laws against the use of noxious substances, including pepper spray, tear gas and mace.
Laws on Possession
State laws also govern possession of pepper spray by civilians. In Alabama, there is no restriction on the possession of self-defense sprays, while in Alaska possession is restricted to adults 18 years of age and older. In Arkansas, self-defense sprays are legal if they have a capacity of no more than 150 cubic centimeters; the size restriction in California is by weight: 2.5 ounces or less. In nearly all states, use of such weapons are legal only for self-defense; use of pepper spray in any other situation with an intent to cause harm constitutes a criminal act.