Assault or Battery Against a Police Officer

Many states impose harsh felony penalties for assault or battery against a police officer.

By | Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney

Assault or battery against a police officer involves injuring or harming an officer who's performing their official duties. In some states, the crime also includes an attempt or threat to cause harm to the officer.

Treated as a very serious crime, many states have specific and harsh penalties that apply to assault or battery against a police officer.

Is It Assault or Battery?

Injuring or attempting to injure anyone—including a police officer—may be called a "battery" or an "assault," depending on how the state uses these terms. Although some states still recognize separate crimes of assault versus battery, others may combine both acts into one offense.

Assault

Traditionally, the crime of assault occurs when a person threatens immediate harm to another, places another in reasonable fear of immediate harm, or attempts to harm another. The victim must believe that the defendant has the ability to carry out the threat of imminent harm.

Battery

A battery usually describes the act of inflicting injuries or bodily harm on another or touching another in an offensive manner even if no visible injuries result. Examples of offensive touching might be spitting on another, grabbing someone's buttocks or breasts, or throwing feces or bodily fluids at another.

Charges for Assault and Battery on a Police Officer

On top of using different terms for assault and battery, states also vary in how they distinguish a general offense from an offense against an officer. Not every state has an offense called "assault or battery on a police officer." Some use various degrees to distinguish the severity of an offense, while others might group all assault and battery offenses under one section of law but impose increasingly severe penalties depending on the level of harm and the victim.

Here are some examples:

  • California has a general assault statute and a general battery statute. In addition to the standard penalty, both statutes include enhanced penalties when the victim is a peace officer, firefighter, or other public safety or health employee. (Cal. Penal Code §§ 241, 243.)
  • Florida has a separate crime for "Assault or battery of law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical care providers, public transit employees or agents, and other specified officers." (Fla. Stat. § 784.07.)
  • Minnesota penalizes assault against a peace officer as assault in the fourth degree (offensive touching and bodily harm) and assault in the first degree (use of deadly force and great bodily harm). The state law uses the term "assault" to describe both assault and battery. (Minn. Stat. §§ 609.221, 609.2231.)

The name of the crime, however, is not important. It's the type of behavior prohibited by the law that's key. And many, if not all, states penalize assault or battery against a police officer more severely than the same crime committed against other individuals.

For instance, a state might impose misdemeanor penalties for a general assault resulting in bodily injuries (such as bruising) to an individual (say a neighbor or co-worker). But a person who commits that same crime against a police officer will face a felony. Similarly, a person who commits aggravated battery for breaking another's nose could be looking at 5 years in prison if the victim is the neighbor but 10 or 15 years if the victim is a police officer.

How States Define Assault and Battery Crimes Against Police Officers

Generally, in order to convict a person of the crime of assault or battery against an officer, the prosecutor must show that the defendant:

  • caused or threatened bodily harm
    • to a law enforcement officer
    • who was performing official duties, and
  • knew or had reason to know the victim was a law enforcement officer.

Injury and Serious Injury

In some states, the defendant must actually cause injury to the officer. The degree of injury required is usually pretty slight and a bruise or a cut will suffice. Causing serious injury to a police officer, such as a broken bone or a gunshot wound, is almost always a very serious crime, punishable by many years in prison.

Engaged in the Performance of Official Duties

The prosecutor must also prove that the assault or battery occurred against an officer engaged in their official duties. The officer doesn't necessarily need to be on the clock as long as the officer is performing a job duty. Examples of official duties include making an arrest (even if the arrest is illegal), directing traffic, or conducting an investigation.

Defendant Knows or Has Reason to Know the Victim Was an Officer

Finally, the defendant must know or have reason to know that the victim is an officer who's acting in that capacity. For example, a defendant would have reason to know someone is an officer by taking notice of their uniform, marked vehicle, or badge. The officer doesn't necessarily need to say "I'm a police officer," if other circumstances put the defendant on notice.

Special Protections for Police Officers and Other First Responders

Many states define police officers broadly to include all law enforcement officers or public safety officials, such:

  • police officers and sheriffs
  • tribal officers
  • federal agents (FBI, DEA, ATF, DNR)
  • correctional officers (jails, prisons, lockups)
  • probation and parole officers
  • university police and school officers
  • transit and parking enforcement officers, and
  • sometimes, private security officers or guards.

Most states also provide special protections for other first responders or emergency officials, such as EMTs, firefighters, emergency room workers, and rescue personnel.

Penalties for Assault or Battery Against a Police Officer

Punishment varies greatly from state to state and depends in part on the circumstances of the crime. Most states provide increasing penalties as the level of harm or potential for harm increases.

Level of Harm or Risk of Harm

Assault and battery against an officer resulting in no visible harm might start as an aggravated misdemeanor or low-level felony. However, it's almost always a felony-level offense to cause bodily harm to an officer. The penalty generally increases based on the severity of harm. A state might use the terms bodily harm, serious or substantial bodily injury, or great or aggravated bodily harm.

Enhanced penalties might also apply if a person tries to disarm an officer, threatens an officer with a weapon or firearm, flees in a vehicle, resists an arrest, or places civilians in harm's way.

Felony Assault or Battery of a Police Officer

Most offenses against a police officer will result in felony charges. A defendant who's unarmed and causes no visible harm might face a misdemeanor, but even the slightest bodily harm (like a bruise), could easily bump up the penalty to a felony. Again, depending on the circumstances and harm inflicted, felony penalties could range anywhere from one to 40-plus years in prison.

State law might also punish the offense against the officer more harshly by imposing mandatory jail or prison time or prohibiting sentencing alternatives, such as probation.

Possible Defenses

While it can be a hard sell, several defenses may be available to a charge for assault or battery on an officer.

Lack of Knowledge

If the defendant didn't know and had no reason to know the victim was a peace officer, the prosecutor might only succeed on charges of general assault or battery.

Accidental Touching

A defendant who trips and slams into an officer didn't intentionally harm the officer. Here, there's been no assault or battery.

Excessive Force

If an officer uses excessive force against an arrestee, the arrestee usually has the right to act in self-defense. But the arrestee generally can't use any more force than is necessary to fend off the attack.

Resisting an Unlawful Arrest Not Always a Defense

If an officer stops you, it's almost always best not to resist arrest. Save the battle for the courtroom. In the overwhelming majority of circumstances, a defendant doesn't have the right to resist arrest—even an illegal one. If you resist arrest, officers are allowed to use force against you, and any physical resistance may lead to a charge of battery against an officer.

Getting Legal Advice and Counsel

If you're charged with assault or battery against an officer, contact a criminal defense attorney. A local criminal defense attorney will know the laws in your state and be able to tell you how your case is likely to fare.

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