If you've been accused of assault, the first thing you should do is realize that this is a serious criminal offense and it should not be taken lightly. Defendants should never think that because they are innocent, they could never be found guilty. Many innocent people get convicted of crimes they did not commit.
Read on to learn the criminal definitions of assault and the steps you can take to protect yourself against false accusations.
An assault is a crime that's defined in different ways, depending on the state. Under one approach, it involves intentionally making another person feel that they are about to be physically harmed, or trying to hit or strike someone but missing. Actually connecting is called a "battery." No actual physical injury is needed to establish assault under this approach. Other states do away with the assault versus battery distinction and describe an assault as attempting or succeeding in striking someone, and a battery as an actual blow.
For more information on assaults and batteries, and links to each state's approach to these crimes (including aggravated assaults and assaults with dangerous weapons), see Assault and Battery.
Even short of a conviction, an accusation of assault can be damaging. Therefore, it's important to take the necessary steps to defend yourself. These might include the following.
If you are questioned by the police, you have the right to remain silent. It is in your best interest not to answer any questions without the advice of legal counsel. Often people think they can help the situation by providing police with their version of the events, but saying too much can backfire.
Write down the details of the events, and preserve any physical evidence. Evidence can include photos, videos, and clothing, but also receipts, online reservations, or other data that establishes where you were and when the crime was committed. Make a list of all potential witnesses that may be able to help your case, along with their contact information.
Unless a court determines that you cannot pay for the cost of your defense (and gives you appointed counsel), you will need to hire a lawyer. It is never a good idea to represent yourself in a criminal matter.
Whether you end up with a public defender or private counsel, talk to your attorney and listen to their advice. Your attorney might suggest that you do nothing at this point. If the prosecution has a weak case, they might drop the charges. But if you keep talking to people about the case, you might provide the prosecution with evidence. Your attorney knows the system and is there to protect your rights and develop a strong defense strategy.
You're about to become part of the criminal justice system. It's a good idea to learn a little about what to expect. For information on the typical course of a criminal case, start with the Criminal Law Process.
Sometimes people make false allegations of assault, for a variety of reasons. These might include:
Go over all the details of the incident with your lawyer. You might learn that you have a defense to the allegations.
Perhaps even more important than what you do is what you don't do.
It's important to understand that citizens don't actually press charges. The prosecutor makes criminal charging decisions. In many states, falsely reporting a crime is a crime itself, but the person must usually know that their allegations are false. If the alleged victim was confused, scared, or used the wrong legal jargon, it's unlikely the prosecutor can prove they knew the allegations were false. Prosecutors won't file criminal charges if they don't think they can prove all the elements of an offense.
Talk to your defense attorney before you take any action. Your attorney can advise you on the laws that apply in your state.
A person falsely accused of committing a crime faces the same challenges as any criminal defendant and requires competent legal counsel. Skilled and knowledgeable criminal defense lawyers know their way around the criminal justice system and can navigate through the complex legal system on your behalf. Even if the charges get dropped or you're acquitted, talk to your attorney about getting your arrest and charging records expunged or sealed.