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At Common Law, an intentional act by one person that creates an apprehension in another of an imminent harmful or offensive contact.

An assault is carried out by a threat of bodily harm coupled with an apparent, present ability to cause the harm. It is both a crime and a tort and, therefore, may result in either criminal or civil liability. Generally, the common law definition is the same in criminal and Tort Law. There is, however, an additional Criminal Law category of assault consisting of an attempted but unsuccessful Battery.

Statutory definitions of assault in the various jurisdictions throughout the United States are not substantially different from the common-law definition.


Generally, the essential elements of assault consist of an act intended to cause an apprehension of harmful or offensive contact that causes apprehension of such contact in the victim.

The act required for an assault must be overt. Although words alone are insufficient, they might create an assault when coupled with some action that indicates the ability to carry out the threat. A mere threat to harm is not an assault; however, a threat combined with a raised fist might be sufficient if it causes a reasonable apprehension of harm in the victim.Intent is an essential element of assault. In tort law, it can be specific intent—if the assailant intends to cause the apprehension of harmful or offensive contact in the victim—or general intent—if he or she intends to do the act that causes such apprehension. In addition, the intent element is satisfied if it is substantially certain, to a reasonable person, that the act will cause the result. A defendant who holds a gun to a victim's head possesses the requisite intent, since it is substantially certain that this act will produce an apprehension in the victim. In all cases, intent to kill or harm is irrelevant.

In criminal law, the attempted battery type of assault requires a Specific Intent to commit battery. An intent to frighten will not suffice for this form of assault.

There can be no assault if the act does not produce a true apprehension of harm in the victim. There must be a reasonable fear of injury. The usual test applied is whether the act would induce such apprehension in the mind of a reasonable person. The status of the victim is taken into account. A threat made to a child might be sufficient to constitute an assault, while an identical threat made to an adult might not.

Virtually all jurisdictions agree that the victim must be aware of the danger. This element is not required, however, for the attempted battery type of assault. A defendant who throws a rock at a sleeping victim can only be guilty of the attempted battery assault, since the victim would not be aware of the possible harm.

Aggravated Assault

An aggravated assault, punishable in all states as a felony, is committed when a defendant intends to do more than merely frighten the victim. Common types of aggravated assaults are those accompanied by an intent to kill, rob, or rape. An assault with a dangerous weapon is aggravated if there is an intent to cause serious harm. Pointing an unloaded gun at a victim to frighten the individual is not considered an aggravated assault.


A defendant adjudged to have committed civil assault is liable for damages. The question of the amount that should be awarded to the victim is determined by a jury. Compensatory Damages, which are aimed at compensating the victim for the injury, are common. Nominal damages, a small sum awarded for the invasion of a right even though there has been no substantial injury, may be awarded. In some cases, courts allow Punitive Damages, which are designed to punish the defendant for the wrongful conduct.

The punishment for criminal assault is a fine, imprisonment, or both. Penalties are more severe when the assault is aggravated. Many states have statutes dividing criminal assault into various degrees. As in aggravated assault, the severity of the crime, the extent of violence and harm, and the criminal intent of the defendant are all factors considered in determining the sentence imposed.

Further readings

Brewer, J. D. 1994. The Danger from Strangers: Confronting the Threat of Assault. Norwell, Mass.: Kluwer Academic.


1) v. the threat or attempt to strike another, whether successful or not, provided the target is aware of the danger. The assaulter must be reasonably capable of carrying through the attack. In some states if the assault is with a deadly weapon (such as sniping with a rifle), the intended victim does not need to know of the peril. Other state laws distinguish between different degrees (first or second) of assault depending on whether there is actual hitting, injury or just a threat. "Aggravated assault" is an attack connected with the commission of another crime, such as beating a clerk during a robbery. 2) n. the act of committing an assault, as in "there was an assault down on Third Avenue." Assault is both a criminal wrong, for which one may be charged and tried, and civil wrong for which the target may sue for damages due to the assault, including for mental distress.


noun act of hostility, aggression, aggressive action, assailment, attack, besiegement, encounter, incursion, incursus, injury, intrusion, irruption, offense, onset, onset with force, onslaught, oppugnatio, siege, strike, sudden attack, violation of another's rights
Associated concepts: aggravated assault, assault and battery, assault with a deadly weapon, assault with intent to commit a felony, assault with intent to commit murder, assault with intent to maim, assault with intent to rape, assault with intent to rob, battery, felonious assault, simple assault


verb accost, accost bellicosely, adgredi, addriri, affront hostilely, aggress, appetere, assail, assault belligerently, attack, attack physically, attempt violence to, deal a blow, harm, oppugn, set upon, set upon with force, set upon with violence, strike, thrust at
See also: accost, ambush, assail, attack, barrage, battery, battle, belligerency, condemn, denounce, fight, incursion, invade, invasion, maltreat, mishandle, mistreat, molest, offense, oppose, oppugn, outbreak, rape, resist, resistance, violence


1 in the law of tort, an assault is an act that causes another person to apprehend the infliction of immediate unlawful force on his person; a battery is the actual infliction of unlawful force on another person. There can be assault without battery, as where the wrongdoer is restrained, but if a battery is immediately impossible then there is not assault, as where a man behind bars threatens violence. There is a conflict of authority concerning the degree to which there must be an actual gesture rather than simple words. There can be battery without an assault in any situation where there is no preceding cause of apprehension, such as a blow to a sleeping person. There does not need to be a direct blow- pulling a chair from under a person is sufficient. Any contact with a person is sufficient to be an assault in law subject to the defence of consent.
2 in English criminal law, the crime constituted broadly as stated above. When included with battery it is another statutory offence. The concept of ‘informed consent’ has been held to have no place in English criminal law. A dentist who, having been suspended from practice treated patients without telling them this fact, had his conviction quashed - the patients agreed to be treated by a dentist and were so treated.
3 in Scots civil law, the delict of unlawful touching or an attack likely to touch, like spitting.
4 in Scots criminal law, a deliberate attack on another person.

ASSAULT, crim. law. An assault is any unlawful attempt or offer with force or violence to do a corporal hurt to another, whether from malice or wantonness; for example, by striking at him or even holding up the fist at him in a threatening or insulting manner, or with other circumstances as denote at the time. an intention, coupled with a present ability, of actual violence against his person, as by pointing a weapon at him when he is within reach of it. 6 Rogers Rec: 9. When the injury is actually inflicted, it amounts to a battery. (q.v.)
     2. Assaults are either simple or aggravated. 1. A simple assault is one Where there is no intention to do any other injury. This is punished at common law by fine and imprisonment. 2. An aggravated assault is one that has in addition to the bare intention to commit it, another object which is also criminal; for example, if a man should fire a pistol at another and miss him, the former would be guilty of an assault with intent to murder; so an assault with intent to rob a man, or with intent to spoil his clothes, and the like, are aggravated assaults, and they are more severely punished than simple assaults. General references, 1 East, P. C. 406; Bull. N. P. 15; Hawk. P. B. b. 1, c. 62, s. 12; 1 Russ. Cr. 604; 2 Camp. Rep. 650 1 Wheeler's Cr. C. 364; 6 Rogers' Rec. 9; 1 Serg. & Rawle, 347 Bac. Ab. h.t.; Roscoe. Cr. Ev. 210.

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