Assault charges are common across the United States. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, 2011 saw 751,131 aggravated assaults occur in the United States. This does not include a large number of defendants charged with simple assault. No matter how it is classified, assault is a violent crime and is treated seriously by the American legal system. If you are charged with assault, seek legal counsel as soon as possible. When discussing the situation with your attorney, make sure you ask 5 important questions.
1. “What am I being charged with?” Legally, “assault” is a broad term which is used differently across the country. Generally, the battery usually requires some type of harmful or offensive contact while assault only requires an action that would put a reasonable person in fear of harmful or offensive contact. However, some statutes use the term assault interchangeably with battery and an assault charge may be a battery charge.
The distinction can have a profound effect on the defendant’s legal strategy. That’s where the services of a legal team are invaluable. If the statutory elements required some level of contact, the defendant can argue that the contact was not so harmful or offensive that it met the statutory language; or he or she may claim that the contact was accidental. If the statute requires intentional actions that would make the victim fearful, the defendant may claim that his or her actions did not rise to a level which would cause that to occur. The precise language of the relevant assault statute will dictate the available defences.
2. “Am I being charged with a felony or a misdemeanour?” Many jurisdictions divide assault into different categories. Depending upon the circumstances and the relevant statute, the crime may qualify as either a misdemeanour or a felony. Typically, simple assault without any serious injuries or the use of weapons will qualify as a misdemeanour. An attack in which the perpetrator threatens to use or does use any type of instrument, or where they cause serious bodily injury will qualify as a felony.
If the alleged offence is being charged as a felony, it is sometimes possible to get the charges reduced to a misdemeanour as a result of a plea deal. This is particularly true with assault charges. Being convicted of a felony strips the convicted party of certain constitutional rights and entitles employers to discriminate against them for the rest of their natural life. While a defendant may not wish to plead guilty, avoiding a felony conviction should be a top priority.
3. “How strong is the prosecution’s case?” Assault charges often involve sparse evidence. In some cases, the officers only collected statements from each party involved and decided to arrest everyone involved and let the courts sort it out. Many witness statements to assault charges involve an incomplete perspective of the situation; for example, eyewitnesses present after the fight started usually cannot tell what precipitated the allegedly unlawful conduct, which can be the central issue if any affirmative defences are raised.
Statements made by the parties involved will usually place all of the blame on the other party. If the police decide to arrest everyone without collecting evidence, defendants stand a reasonably good chance of having any subsequent charges dismissed, as defendants may raise an affirmative defence or even deny committing the assault altogether. If the case hinges upon one biased witness or the statements of other witnesses who cannot be located, a defence attorney may be able to get the case dismissed.
4. “Should I use an affirmative defence?” Assaults are rarely unprovoked, occurring for no reason. If you committed the actions that the prosecution believes constitute the crime of assault as a result of feeling threatened by the alleged victim, ask your lawyer about it. Self-defence is a common and valid defence to assault charges. Consent is another defence to some assault charges in some situations.
To claim self-defence, defendants must be responding to greater or equal levels of force being inflicted upon them or a threat of the immediate use of that force; they must also have used no more force than is reasonably necessary to stop the threat. The law varies between jurisdictions, but it generally follows along those lines. Being able to articulate why you felt threatened is vital to a successful self-defence claim. If the alleged victim brandished a weapon or attempted to assault you first, inform your attorney in detail. Minor factors like the alleged victim having an aggressive posture flared nostrils, and clenched fists may also help.
5. “What alternatives are available for jail time?” As over 90 per cent of defendants charged with crimes, defendants of assault charges may consider pleading guilty. Pleading guilty to a lesser charge or being offered deferred adjudication allows defendants to spend relatively little time in jail, and suffer relatively few consequences in the future. Sometimes, attending counselling or anger management classes may be a part of the deal; other times, the deal may stand on its own. In either event, defendants should not discount the possibility of taking a favourable deal if one is offered.
These questions are not a comprehensive list of discussion topics. When consulting your attorney after being charged with assault, you should ask as many questions as possible. Other questions may include possible sentences and the long-term ramifications of a conviction for the underlying charges.