California Assault and Battery Laws

Assault and battery are different crimes in California.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated 3/12/2024

A person convicted of assault or battery in California faces a wide range of penalties depending on the circumstance of the offense, the targeted victim, the resulting injuries (if any), and whether a weapon was used.

Assault vs. Battery Offenses in California

Assault and battery are two different offenses in California. Battery is the intentional and unlawful use of force or violence against another. Assault is an attempted battery—the law defines it as an unlawful attempt, coupled with a present ability, to commit a violent injury on another person.

Examples of Assault vs. Battery

For instance, a person who tries to slap someone and misses has committed an assault. If that person made contact, they committed a battery (injuries are not required). Both crimes require that the defendant intended to do the crime. If a person gets pushed into another or trips and falls and hits another, there's no criminal intent involved and no crime.

Definitions Relating to Assault and Battery Crimes

Circumstances that can result in harsher charges and penalties for assault and battery include:

  • assault or battery against a "protected victim"
  • assault or battery with a weapon
  • assault by means likely to produce great bodily injuries, and
  • battery resulting in bodily injuries or serious bodily injuries.

Protected victims. Examples of protected victims include police officers, first responders, school employees, service members, highway workers, transportation providers, jurors, and certain government and healthcare workers. For battery crimes, the list also includes elderly or dependent adults, sports officials, and family or household members. (California law names too many protected classes to list here. Check out sections 240 to 248 in the Penal Code for more information.)

Weapons. Weapons can include stun guns, Tasers, deadly weapons (such as knives, metal knuckles, and billy clubs), and firearms. Objects that can be used to harm others can also be considered weapons. For example, a butter knife or baseball bat can easily be used as a weapon despite not being designed for that purpose. (Cal. Penal Code §§ 16430, 16520, 16780 (2024).)

Assault likely to cause great bodily injuries. One type of aggravated assault occurs when a person uses force that could result in "great bodily injuries"—defined as "significant or substantial physical injury." The law doesn't specify what exact force could inflict such injuries. Rather, it's up to a jury to decide. (Cal. Penal Code § 12022.7 (2024); People v. Cross, 190 P.3d 706 (2008).)

Battery resulting in injuries. A battery that results in injury or serious bodily injury generally carries stiffer penalties. An "injury" is any physical harm that requires medical treatment (even if the victim chooses not to receive treatment). "Serious bodily injuries" are defined as a serious impairment of a physical condition, such as wounds requiring stitches, bone fractures, a concussion, loss of consciousness, severe sprain, swollen shut black eye, or serious disfigurement.

(Cal. Penal Code §§ 240, 242, 243 (2024).)

What Is Considered an Assault in California?

Assault is an attempted battery. For a conviction, a prosecutor must prove the defendant committed an act (that amounts to more than preparation), intended that act to result in a battery, and had the immediate ability to inflict harm. Threats of future harm won't be enough. But if a person threatens immediate harm, even if they don't intend to go through with it, those threats can be charged as assault.

For instance, walking up to another person while pounding a fist into one's palm is an immediate threat—and assault. Throwing a glass bottle at someone during a heated argument (but missing) would also be an assault in California, as long as the intended victim was within striking distance. Making a motion—like winding up to throw that glass bottle—also presents an immediate threat. Similarly, pointing a loaded firearm or threatening to use a weapon against someone is considered an assault.

What Are the Penalties for Assault in California?

A person convicted of assault can face misdemeanor or felony penalties in California

Misdemeanor Assault Penalties

Simple assault in California generally carries a misdemeanor penalty of up to six months of jail time and a $1,000 fine. However, if the defendant knowingly assaults a protected victim, the misdemeanor penalty increases. A defendant would face up to 364 days of jail time and a $2,000 fine. For example, assaulting a first responder, traffic officer, highway worker, or school employee can result in these increased charges. Assault crimes committed on school, park, or public transportation property are also subject to these increased misdemeanor penalties.

Wobbler Penalties for Assaults

More serious assaults can be charged as misdemeanors or felonies—and are called "wobblers." The prosecutor decides what charges to file but the ultimate sentence is up to the judge.

For wobbler assaults, the law specifies either a misdemeanor penalty of up to 364 days of county jail time or a felony prison sentence. Most of the possible felony sentences range from 16 months to 5 years (a few go as high as 8 years). Examples of wobbler assaults include:

  • assault with a stun gun or less lethal weapon
  • assault with a deadly weapon (not a firearm), and
  • assault by means likely to produce great bodily harm (see definition above).

The law increases the potential felony sentence for several of these wobblers when certain protected victims are involved. For instance, assault with a stun gun can be punished by 364 days of jail time or 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years of prison time. When the victim is a police officer or firefighter, the possible prison sentence goes up to 2, 3, or 4 years.

Felony Assault Penalties

Several assault crimes involving weapons carry straight felony penalties. These include:

  • assault with a firearm against a police officer or firefighter
  • assault by means likely to produce great bodily injury against a police officer, firefighter, or public transit operator, and
  • assault with a semiautomatic weapon or machine gun.

Felony prison sentences range anywhere from 3 to 12 years.

(Cal. Penal Code §§ 241, 241.1, 241.2, 241.3, 241.5, 241.6, 241.7, 241.8, 1170 (2024).).

What Is Considered Battery in California?

Battery involves an intentional and unlawful touching. In other terms, it's a completed assault.

Most people think of battery as physical force or violence against another. While true, under the law, even the slightest touching—when done in a rude, angry, or threatening manner—can be a battery. Striking another person with a fist during an argument or shoving someone are straightforward examples of battery. Forcefully grabbing someone's arm would also be considered battery. Other forms of battery can include administering poison or putting a caustic substance on someone.

Physical or visible injuries are not required for a battery conviction. It's the offensive touching that counts. However, injuries do have an impact on penalties. The more serious the injuries are, the stiffer the penalty will be. It doesn't matter what injuries the defendant intended, the resulting injuries determine the crime. For instance, a defendant might have intended only to shove the victim. But suppose that shove results in the victim falling and sustaining a laceration above the eye requiring stitches. In that case, the defendant can face charges and penalties for battery resulting in serious bodily injuries (see definition above).

(Cal. Penal Code §§ 242, 243 (2024).)

What Are the Penalties for Battery in California?

Like assault, a defendant convicted of battery can face misdemeanor or felony penalties.

Misdemeanor Battery Penalties

Simple battery starts as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 6 months of jail time and a $2,000 fine. The misdemeanor penalty increases to 364 days of possible jail time if the person commits a battery while on school, park, or hospital property or against a protected victim

Examples of protected victims include first responders, school employees, highway workers, and service members. It can also include an elderly or dependent adult, a family or household member, or a sports official. If the protected person is an operator, driver, or passenger on public transportation (including taxis and school buses), the potential fine increases from $2,000 to $10,000.

Wobbler Penalties for Battery

More serious batteries can be charged as misdemeanors or felonies—and are called "wobblers." The prosecutor decides which offense level to charge but the judge makes the ultimate decision.

Typically, wobbler penalties come into play when a battery involves:

  • a healthcare worker providing emergency medical care
  • a juror in the defendant's case
  • other protected victims who receive injuries, and
  • any victim receiving serious bodily injuries.

Wobbler penalties carry up to 364 days of jail time or time in prison (ranging from 16 months to 4 years).

Felony Penalties for Battery

Battery crimes carrying straight felony penalties include:

  • throwing or placing corrosive acid, flammable substances, or caustic chemicals on another, and
  • committing battery against a custodial officer.

(Cal. Penal Code §§ 243, 243.1, 243.2, 243.25, 243.3, 243.35, 243.6, 243.65, 243.7, 243.8, 243.10, 244 (2024).)

Defenses to Assault or Battery Charges in California

Defendants charged with assault or battery have all the usual defenses available to criminal defendants, such as "You've got the wrong person," and "It wasn't me." A defendant might argue it's a case of mistaken identity or present an alibi.

A defense attorney might also try to poke holes in the prosecutor's case. The defense could argue the situation was an accident (no intent), the defendant never touched or threatened the victim, or the injuries or force used didn't rise to the level of serious or great bodily injuries. The judge or jury must acquit if the prosecutor doesn't prove every element beyond a reasonable doubt.

Another common defense in assault and battery charges is self-defense. A defendant might claim that the alleged victim initiated the confrontation and the defendant reacted reasonably and in self-defense.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you're facing charges or an investigation for assault or battery, talk to a criminal defense attorney right away. An attorney can help you understand what the charges mean, what the potential penalties are, and what impact a criminal conviction may have in the future.

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