Elements of Assault
Generally speaking, "assault" occurs when someone threatens bodily harm to another in a convincing way. Assault often is followed by battery, which is defined as unlawful physical conduct (often an act of violence, but also unwelcome sexual contact). Not all threats are considered assault. To rise to the level of an actionable offense (in which the plaintiff may file suit), two main elements must be present:
- The act was intended to cause apprehension of harmful or offensive contact; and
- the act indeed caused apprehension in the victim that harmful or offensive contact would occur.
Therefore, a person who intends to cause apprehension of imminent harm and succeeds in doing so has committed the tort of assault, which also is a crime.
More Than Just Words
Words, without an act, cannot constitute an assault. For example, no assault has occurred where a person waves his arms at another and shouts, "I'm going to shoot you!" where no gun is visible or apparent. However, if the threatening words are accompanied by some action that indicates the perpetrator has the ability to carry out a threat, an assault has occurred.
It is an assault where a person threatens to shoot another while pointing a gun, even where the victim later learns that the gun was not loaded or even real. Moreover, pointing a gun without an accompanying verbal threat is still an assault, assuming the victim saw the gun.
Intent to Cause Apprehension
Assault requires intent, meaning that there has been a deliberate, unjustified interference with the personal right or liberty of another in a way that causes harm. In the tort of assault, intent is established if a reasonable person is substantially certain that certain consequences will result; intent is established whether or not he or she actually intends those consequences to result. Pointing a gun at someone's head is substantially certain to result in apprehension for the victim.
In criminal law, intent means acting with a criminal or wrongful purpose. Criminal assault statutes often speak of acting "purposely," "knowingly," "recklessly," or "negligently." Acting negligently means to grossly deviate from the standards of normal conduct. Some criminal assault statutes recognize only "purposely," "knowingly," and "recklessly" as the level of intent required to establish that an offense occurred.
Apprehension of Imminent Harm
The victim must have a reasonable apprehension of imminent injury or offensive contact. This element is established if the act would produce apprehension in the mind of a reasonable person. Apprehension is not the same as fear. Apprehension means awareness that an injury or offensive contact is imminent.
Whether an act would create apprehension in the mind of a reasonable person varies depending upon the circumstances. For example, it may take less to create apprehension in the mind of a child than an adult. Moreover, if a victim is unaware of the threat of harm, no assault has occurred. An assailant who points a gun at a sleeping person has not committed an assault. Finally, the threat must be imminent, meaning impending or about to occur. Threatening to kill someone at a later date would not constitute an assault.
See FindLaw's Assault, Battery and Intentional Torts section for more information.