Although assault laws vary from state to state, in most places, if you meant to push someone, you can be convicted of assault. In other words, if you intentionally (rather than accidentally) pushed someone, even if you didn't intend to injure them, you probably committed assault. In this scenario, unless a defense like self-defense applies, you could be convicted in court if the prosecution decided to charge you.
When someone injures or intends to injure someone else with a shove, the consequences are usually more serious than for a simple push. A push that causes injury could mean the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony.
As with most crimes, assault requires proof that the defendant acted with a certain state of mind ("mens rea").
The types of acts that constitute an assault vary from state to state. For something to be assault, some states require actual physical contact. In those states, an assault might require causing someone either:
Some states allow for an assault charge even if the defendant didn't make physical contact with the victim. (They might prosecute physical contact as a battery, instead.) In those states, a person can commit an assault by:
So, depending on the facts, a push could qualify as an assault. A push is normally considered offensive physical contact and can sometimes cause injury. And when you begin to push someone, they could fear imminent harm of falling onto a hard surface or harm from the push itself.
The general rule in criminal law is that a person can't be convicted of a crime for something that was accidental. The prosecutor must prove that the defendant acted with a particular mental state.
In keeping with the general rule, accidents aren't assault, but acts that are intentional, knowing, or reckless can be. So, pushing someone because you tripped and stumbled into them isn't an assault. In an assault case based on a push, the prosecutor typically has to prove that the defendant acted intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly.
Using the elements described above, let's review some examples of when a shove or push becomes a criminal assault.
People act intentionally when they mean to do something or they intend a certain result from what they do. For example, let's assume that Walter is so angry at Richard during an argument that he reaches out and shoves Richard. The prosecutor could probably prove the shove was intentional. In a state where only the act of pushing needs to be intentional, Walter could be convicted of assault.
But in a state that also requires intent to injure, the prosecutor would have to show that when Walter pushed Richard, he intended to injure him. Proving this kind of intent is often more difficult because what's in someone's mind isn't always clear.
Usually, the prosecutor will rely on circumstantial evidence, such as how hard the push was, where it happened (on soft grass or on concrete, for example), and what was said. So, Walter yelling, "You're going down!" and pushing Richard so hard that he fell backward onto hard pavement might be enough to show intent to injure.
Ultimately, regardless of whether the person says anything, the harder the push, the more likely there's intent to injure.
Acting "knowingly" is very similar to acting "intentionally," but it can be less deliberate. Generally, people act knowingly in the legal sense when they're aware of:
So, in the above example, assume that Walter and Richard are at the top of a stairway, with Richard's back to the stairs. Assume as well that although the push wasn't that forceful, it was enough that Richard lost his balance and fell down the stairs. In that circumstance, Walter might have a hard time convincing a judge or jury that he didn't mean to push Richard down the stairs. Because Walter knew where Richard was when he pushed him, he probably "knowingly" pushed him down the stairs.
In a way, the easiest mindset for the prosecution to prove is recklessness. In general, people act recklessly when they're aware of and consciously disregard the risk their conduct poses to others. Conduct is reckless when it's significantly different than how the average law-abiding person would act.
Let's revisit Walter and Richard at the top of the stairway. The push that sent Richard tumbling down the stairs would probably be seen as, at a minimum, reckless. The average person would understand that pushing someone right near the stairway could cause them to fall, leading to the natural inference that Walter consciously disregarded that risk when he pushed Richard. In a state that defines an assault as recklessly causing physical injury, Walter would likely be found guilty, assuming Richard was hurt.
An assault from a push that involves no injury or minor injuries is usually a misdemeanor. Depending on the state, consequences for a misdemeanor assault conviction can include jail time, community service, probation, restitution, and fines. A judge could also a defendant to attend anger management classes or substance abuse treatment.
In some states, intentionally injuring the victim—or assaulting them with force likely to cause injury—can result in a felony conviction. Assaults are almost always punished as felonies when the victim is seriously injured. Punishment for a felony can include time in prison, along with all the penalties described above.
Although shoving someone normally results in an assault charge at most, it can lead to other charges in some circumstances. Here are a few other potential charges from a push.
Battery. As noted above, some states charge unwanted physical contact as battery instead of assault (Florida is one example).
Mayhem. A push that causes very severe injuries could be charged as mayhem, which is an assault that causes disfigurement. This serious felony charge is unlikely for a push, but not impossible. For example, if the defendant shoved the victim into a sharp object, a mayhem charge might result if the victim was maimed.
Attempted murder. A push that could have killed someone but didn't can be charged as attempted murder. Let's think one more time about Walter and Richard. Assume this time that they're on a roof. If the evidence shows that Walter meant to and did push Richard off the roof, a jury might conclude that he intended to kill Richard.
Murder or manslaughter. Of course, if the fall did kill Richard, Walter could be charged with murder or voluntary manslaughter. And if Walter intended to push Walter but not off the roof, he could be charged with involuntary manslaughter if Richard fell off and died.
If you're charged with any crime, you should contact a local criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Even if you're only charged with a misdemeanor, a criminal conviction can have serious and lasting consequences.
An experienced attorney should know whether any defenses apply and be able to help you navigate the criminal legal system. They should also be able to advise you whether, on the facts of your case, you should consider a plea deal or go to trial.