Assault vs. Battery (What’s the Difference?)

We’ve all heard the phrase on TV or in movies: “You’re under arrest for assault and battery.”  The commonly heard phrase conjures up images of bar fights, parking lot duels, and overly-enthusiastic football fans duking it out during the game-time drama.  But what are the legal definitions of the crimes?  The terms of assault and battery are two separate legal concepts with distinct elements.  In the State of Minnesota, there is no crime of battery.  Rather, the acts constituting battery in other states are defined under the assault statutes in Minnesota.

In most states, an assault/battery is committed when one person:

  1. tries to or does physically strike another,
  2. acts in a threatening manner to put another in fear of immediate harm.

Many states, including Minnesota, have a separate category for aggravated assault when severe injury or the use of a deadly weapon or force is involved.  Assaults and batteries can also be pursued via civil lawsuits (where a person sues another for money damages versus calling the police to report a crime).

In short, assault is an attempt or threat to injure another person, while battery is actually the act of making contact with another person in a harmful or offensive manner (think: beating someone with a bat = battery).  

In Minnesota, there is no recognized crime of battery.  Rather, Minnesota groups battery and assaults together and defines them all as varying degrees of assault (misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor, felony). Some assaults require actual contact with the victim, while others do not.

Assault Crimes in Minnesota Vary in Degree and Severity

In Minnesota, assault charges vary in degrees of severity from misdemeanor (lowest level offense level) to felony (highest offense level).  Assault can refer to either the intent to cause bodily harm or the creation of a scenario where the victim is supposed to believe that they’re about to become the victim of bodily harm.

Fifth Degree Assault is a misdemeanor and MN Stat 609.224 defines this offense two ways. Whoever does any of the following commits an assault and is guilty of a misdemeanor:

  1. commits an act with intent to cause fear in another of immediate bodily harm or death
  2. intentionally inflicts or attempts to inflict bodily harm upon another.

A person can be charged with an assault even if they never actually strike or come into contact with that other person.

For example:  Suppose a defendant is wielding a physical object, like a chair, and raises it above another person’s head or approaches a victim in a manner that suggests they’re about to attack. This immediate sense of danger on behalf of the victim is in itself assault, with emphasis on the immediate.  But, threats suggesting far off in the future or at a later time do not constitute assault.

A fifth-degree assault is punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1000 fine or both.

A fourth-degree assault is a gross misdemeanor and MN § 609.2231 covers a variety of types of assaults against particular individuals that entail greater punishment than that of a misdemeanor.  A gross misdemeanor is punishable by up to 365 days in jail and a $3000 fine or both.

An example of a fourth-degree assault is a person who assaults and inflicts demonstrable bodily harm on an employee of the Dept. of Natural Resources who is engaged in forest fire activities.  Another example of fourth-degree assault are assaults motivated by bias.  For example, whoever assaults another because of the victim’s or another’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, disability age or national origin, can be charged with a gross misdemeanor.

Third Degree Assault is a felony in the state of Minnesota pursuant to MN Stat. 609.223. The offense is defined as “whoever assaults another and inflicts substantial bodily harm may be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than five years or to payment of a fine of not more than $10,000 or both.”

The term substantial bodily harm carries legal importance and it is significant to note that misdemeanor assaults only require bodily injury, whereas felonies require substantial bodily harm. Substantial bodily harm is defined as bodily injury which involves a temporary but substantial disfigurement, or which causes a temporary but substantial loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ, or which causes a fracture of any bodily member.  MN § 609.02 Subd. 7(a)

Second Degree Assault is a felony under MN § 609.222 In general, the use of a dangerous weapon during an assault constitutes this offense.  Second Degree Assault is so serious that mandatory prison time may result.

First Degree Assault is a felony under MN § 609.221 Subd. 1.  First Degree Assault is defined as an assault resulting in great bodily harm.  First-degree assault is punishable by mandatory prison time.   Great bodily harm is defined as bodily injury which creates a high probability of death, or which causes serious permanent disfigurement, or which causes a permanent or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ or other serious bodily harm.

Any level of assault, whether misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor or felony, can have significant impact on one’s life and future.  That is why it is imperative to discuss the particulars of an assault case with an experienced criminal assault attorney.

What About Civil Assault?

Civil assault cases require the victim to file their own case in civil court and hire an attorney to make the case. While criminal assault begins with a crime and subsequent arrest, in civil assault it is the victim’s responsibility to file the case.  The victim typically files a personal injury case to sue the offender for damages.

In regards to civil assault, it’s typically to seek damages awards or injunctive relief to prevent further harm. It should be noted that alleged suspects of civil assault cannot be sentenced to prison or jail time because the remedies in civil court are limited to civil remedies such as money damages.

Compared to a criminal assault case where the state prosecutes the charges, civil assault cases have a much lower burden of proof and the victim need to prove her case by a preponderance of the evidence (just over 50%).  The more difficult aspects in civil cases come from the issue of proving damages.

Felony Assaults

Felony assaults, as defined above, involve high level punishments because the crimes usually involve dangerous weapons, substantial or great bodily injury and significant long-lasting effects for the alleged victim.

These conditions may also depend on jurisdiction; however, some components ring true for most states, including Minnesota:

  1. If a suspect used a weapon during an assault (e.g., a gun, knife, etc.)
  2. If the victim is legally determined vulnerable (e.g., a child, elderly person, or pregnant)
  3. If the victim sustained a long-lasting injury or severe harm

Prosecutors seek out these situations or conditions when attempting to raise a charge from a misdemeanor to a felony.  It is important that the defense attorney understand the differences among the charges and how a good defense can take many forms, including challenging the existence of substantial bodily harm or great bodily harm.

How Are These Crimes Punished?

Depending on your jurisdiction, criminal punishments for these crimes may greatly differ — with varying sentencing guidelines. Whether or not a defendant is a first time offender, the severity of an attack and the condition of the victim(s) can all play a role in legally handling assault or battery.

First-time offenses that involve non-threatening acts may result in a short stay in jail, along with some community service (or probation). Unsurprisingly, as the severity of an attack increases — so does the punishment.

Greater offenses that result in significant injury or harm to the victim will likely result in prison time. Some felony assaults entail mandatory prison time, even for first time offenders.

Seeking Counsel

In any case, defendants accused of assault, battery, or aggravated assault or batter should always consult with an experienced assault attorney.  While some attorneys may claim to do a little bit of everything, Lauren Campoli does one thing, and she does it well.  She defends those accused of criminal offenses, including felony and misdemeanor assaults. She is a dedicated criminal defense counsel who has tried over 50 jury trials on behalf of people accused of assaults and other serious crimes.

Contact a Dedicated Criminal Defense Lawyer in Minneapolis

If you’ve been charged with a felony or misdemeanor assault charge, you’re going to need legal counsel. Lauren Campoli will work with you to seek the best outcome possible in your criminal case, exhausting every option, discussing a clear cut case strategy, and fighting for your future. Contact us online today or call us at 612-810-0060 to schedule a strategy session with an experienced Minneapolis assault attorney.