Discussing what constitutes a criminal assault can be trickier than it might appear on the surface. Entire penal codes are written to explain the various types of assault and punishments for each. To gain a base-level understanding of how assault statutes of limitations are classified in California, it’s necessary to discuss related codes for the state, such as California Code of Civil Procedure Section 335.1. Statutes of limitations prescribe the allowable length of time for bringing a legal action after a given incident.
Penal Code Section 240 in California
In California, Penal Code Section 240 is the statute that defines the crime of assault. PC 240 states that "An assault is an unlawful attempt, coupled with a present ability, to commit a violent injury on the person of another." This is also known as simple assault.
The term simple assault is used to describe assaults that happen with minimal damage to either party. Simple assault is the most common form of assault and covers everything from a bar fight to a one-on-one domestic physical altercation.
Statute of Limitations on Assault
California Code of Civil Procedure section 335.1 speaks to the statute of limitations on assaults in California. Under this code, a person has two years from the date of an assault incident to file a civil lawsuit in an assault and battery case, although this is reduced if the assault or a violent crime occurred at the hands of a government agency, where a victim has 180 days from the date of the incident to file a lawsuit against the government. However, before a lawsuit can be filed against the government, it is necessary to first file an administrative claim. Depending on the results of this claim, the plaintiff then has the option to sue.
There are different statutes of limitations for criminal cases. According to Penal Code Section 802, there is a one-year statute of limitations in California for all misdemeanors, meaning that if the assault is charged as a misdemeanor, it must be prosecuted within one year. According to Penal Code Section 803, felony assault has a three-year statute of limitations for prosecution.
Required Elements to Prove Assault
When a defendant is charged with assault, all of these elements must be true:
- The defendant knowingly and willfully harmed the victim. Was there an intent to harm the victim or was the altercation accidental?
- The defendant's actions were likely to result in the use of force against another person. Would a reasonable person conclude that the defendant's act would logically cause the use of force against the victim?
- The defendant was aware of what he was doing, and a reasonable person would believe that the result of the defendant's actions would be force applied to another person. Is the defendant aware enough to know that he was committing a crime?
- The defendant was able to apply force to another person. Could the assault have physically taken place as outlined in court?
Assault vs. Battery
Despite the use of the popular phrase assault and battery, assault is one set of crimes in California, while battery is another. The crime of battery requires a successful use of force or violence against another party or a showing that the physical contact was performed without consent, even if it was not violent. In these instances, it is essential to remember that any contact constitutes battery. The victim does not have to receive an injury from the altercation to prove battery.
Assault, by contrast, is the attempt to apply force to another person. To help illustrate this, consider these examples:
- Jim gets into a verbal altercation at a bar with Ron. Jim then throws a beer bottle at Ron. In this instance, Jim has committed simple assault, even if the glass did not strike Ron.
- Billy gets into a fight with Bob and attempts to hit him. Bob ducks and avoids being hit by Billy. Billy still has committed simple assault due to his intent to beat up Bob.
Penalties for Assault in California
Simple assault is a misdemeanor under California law. Misdemeanors are lesser criminal acts that are punished less severely than felonies. In fact, misdemeanor punishments are often paid only by way of fines. A misdemeanor falls at the midpoint between an administrative infraction, such as a parking ticket, and a more serious crime like a felony. Simple assault is a misdemeanor in California, and the penalties in most cases include a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to six months in county jail.
Assault Against a Public Servant
You could face stricter penalties if you assault a person who is performing their job function. This protected class includes all public servants, such as firefighters, postal workers and police while they are in uniform. These stricter penalties also apply to assaults against people in the medical field.
The reasoning behind these stricter penalties is that public service individuals deal with the public far more than other people do. They are also required as part of their job function to perform actions that others may disagree with.
For example, a parking control officer putting a ticket on a car is simply doing her job. However, the owner of the vehicle may become angry and attempt to harm the officer. Due to the increased danger, the fines and punishments for assault also increase. In these instances, the maximum county jail sentence increases to one year, and the maximum fine to $2,000.
Penal Code Section 242
Penal Code Section 240 defines what assault is, and Penal Code Section 242 defines the crime of battery in California. Although assault does not require physical contact, battery does. Because assault and battery are two separate charges under California law, they are not tried as one crime. Assault charges may be brought in addition to other charges, including battery.
This means that you could be charged under two penal code sections for the same criminal incident. For example, if you are in a fight and swing and miss once, you have committed an assault. If you swing again and make contact, you have committed a battery. Battery causing serious bodily injury as addressed in PC 242 can be added to charges if the defendant managed to use force or violence against another person.
Battery and Injuries in California
If someone manages to inflict a severe or lifelong injury on a victim, stricter penalties may be added to the sentence. Along with battery, a charge of battery causing serious bodily injury can be brought under Penal Code Section 242(d). Inflicting severe bodily injury can be either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances of each case. A defendant convicted of committing a battery that causes serious injury could serve between two to four years in prison.
If an individual has sustained injuries due to intentional acts of assault and battery, she has the right to seek monetary compensation. In California, any victim of violent crime has the right to seek compensation for up to two years after the incident. You do not have to actually go to court before the two-year mark, but you do need to have filed your case before then.
What Acts Constitute Assault in California?
California has various assault laws. For example, PC 245(a)(1) defines punishments for assault weapons other than firearms. It states, "Any person who commits an assault upon the person of another with a deadly weapon or instrument other than a firearm shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for two, three, or four years, or in a county jail for not exceeding one year, or by a fine not exceeding ten thousand dollars ($10,000), or by both the fine and imprisonment."
In this instance, a deadly weapon is any item that can be used to kill another human being. Assault with a deadly weapon is a crime that can shift from a misdemeanor to a felony. The maximum sentence that a misdemeanor can accrue is one year in county jail; felony jail time can be up to four years for assault.
Disturbing the Peace in California
Another type of crime that tends to become lumped into assault and battery is disturbing the peace. Recognized under Penal Code Section 415, this particular law makes it illegal to fight someone in public, scream or disturb others in public areas. Disturbing the peace carries a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail. However, it can also be treated as a minor infraction, depending on what occurred during the disruption of the peace.
Assaults on Public Officials in California
If simple assault is committed against a public official during, or as a result of their duties, it constitutes a violation of Penal Code Section 217(a). In this instance, public officials are not the same as general service workers, such as those at the post office or the fire department. Public officials include legal personnel and officers of city, state and federal governments. Like other forms of assault, the assault on a public official may be a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the details of the altercation.
Assault with Caustic Chemicals in California
Penal Code Section 244 defines assault with caustic chemicals. Due to the rise of the use of acid to disfigure another person, California treats these assaults more seriously and considers them felonies. Legally, assault with caustic chemicals involves throwing or placing any variety of caustic chemicals on someone else's body with the intent to kill, injure or disfigure. For these acts, you could be sentenced to up to four years in prison.
Interference with a Vehicle and Vehicular Assault
When someone throws rocks or other objects at a passing car or otherwise interferes with a vehicle, they have violated Vehicle Code Section 23110. These crimes take place on public streets and can severely damage a car and injure the driver or passers-by. In most cases, violation of VC 23110 is a misdemeanor.
However, the act can become a felony if the object thrown is capable of causing severe injury. Even if the defendant does not consider what they threw to be a deadly projectile, the judge or jury ultimately decides what constitutes deadly.
If the facts of a case justify it, prosecutors may choose this law to charge a defendant instead of charging assault. Vehicular assault is a similar crime, in that the object does not have to make contact with the car for it to be considered a deadly projectile.