In Massachusetts, a person can commit the crime of assault or the crime of assault and battery. These crimes start as misdemeanors but can be punished as felonies if serious injury results, certain victims are targeted, or a dangerous weapon is used. This article will provide an overview of how Massachusetts defines and punishes assault crimes and assault-and-battery crimes.
Under Massachusetts' laws, assault is a separate, distinct crime from assault and battery. Here's how case law distinguishes the two.
Massachusetts defines an assault as:
A person doesn't need to inflict injury or even make physical contact with another to commit an assault. For example, throwing a punch at someone—even if the punch misses—is the first type of assault. For this type of assault, the victim doesn't need to be afraid of, or even aware of, the other person's actions.
Running at someone with your fists up is the second type of assault. For this type of assault, the person must intend to put the victim in fear of bodily harm and the conduct must be reasonably perceived as threatening imminent physical harm.
In Massachusetts, someone commits assault and battery by deliberately touching the victim:
For example, hitting someone would be assault and battery. But the victim doesn't need to sustain an injury, as long as there is physical contact (no matter how slight).
The crime of assault and the crime of assault and battery begin as misdemeanors, but can become felonies when:
Massachusetts' laws carry numerous enhancements for assault and assault-and-battery crimes. Those factors listed above summarize the primary enhancements—but be sure to consult with an attorney or Massachusetts General Laws for more information.
Assaults and batteries that cause injury can be punished more severely. Massachusetts' assault laws refer to bodily injury and serious or substantial bodily injury.
Bodily injury is any burn, fracture, bruise, internal injury, any injury that results from repeated harm to the victim, or any physical condition that endangers a victim's health or welfare.
Serious or substantial bodily injury creates a substantial risk of death, causes permanent disfigurement, or results in protracted loss or impairment of any part of the body. Breaking someone's arm or causing injuries that leave permanent scars or require surgery may fall under these definitions of harm.
Someone who assaults a vulnerable victim based on age, health, relation, or occupation also faces harsher penalties. The law provides enhanced protections to the following victims:
Wanton or reckless behavior. When a crime is committed by a caretaker of a child or adult victim, penalties apply whether the caretaker acted intentionally or "wantonly or recklessly" permitted the resulting injuries.
More on assault and battery on family or household members can be found in our article on Massachusetts Domestic Violence Laws.
Assault and battery with a dangerous weapon is punished more severely (as a felony) than a simple assault.
A dangerous weapon is any instrument designed to be a weapon or that is likely to produce death or great bodily harm. Guns and knives are dangerous weapons, but so are normally innocent objects if they are used in a dangerous manner. For example, a lit cigar becomes a dangerous weapon if it is used to burn someone. Even a dog or vehicle can be a dangerous weapon if used to attack another person.
More severe charges can also be imposed on a person who commits assault or battery in furtherance of another crime or as a hate crime, for instance:
Assault and assault and battery start with misdemeanor penalties of up to two-and-a-half years in jail (called the House of Correction). The penalties go up from there. Massachusetts' laws on assault penalties are too numerous to explain in detail here. This section will provide an overview of common assault penalties. Consult an attorney or the Massachusetts General Laws for more information.
In many assault and assault-and-battery crimes, the law allows a judge to impose either a misdemeanor of two-and-a-half years in jail or a felony sentence of three or more years in prison. The penalties listed below discuss the maximum felony penalty that can be imposed in such cases, but the judge retains the option of imposing a two-and-a-half-year sentence as well.
A judge can impose up to three or five years in prison for the following assault and assault-and-battery convictions where:
The possible felony penalty increases to ten or 15 years where serious bodily injuries resulted and the victim was a police officer, elderly or disabled victim, or child younger than 14.
Assault with a deadly weapon also carries a possible 10-year felony sentence, which increases to 15 years if a vulnerable victim or serious bodily injury resulted. When the offense involves actually discharging a firearm, the sentence can be up to 20 years. Various other possible sentences might apply depending on the weapon used and other factors related to the crime.
Assault by drugging carries a possible 10-year felony, and if the crime involved battery, the possible felony penalty goes up to 15 years of incarceration.
Assault with intent to rape can be punished by up to 20 years in prison or life in certain circumstances.
Certain assaults or assaults and batteries carry mandatory minimum sentences on top of the maximums specified above. Some examples include:
Being convicted of assault or assault and battery can have serious consequences, including time in jail or prison, a fine, and a criminal record. If you are charged with assault or assault and battery, you should contact a Massachusetts criminal defense attorney immediately. An experienced attorney will be able to tell you how your case is likely to fare in court and can make the best arguments on your behalf so that you can achieve the most desirable outcome in your case.
(Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 265, §§ 13, 13A, 13C, 13d, 13I, 13J, 13K, 13L, 13M, 15, 15A, 15B, 15C, 15E, 18, 20, 24, 29, 39 (2023); Mass. Crim. Model Jury Instructions, No. 6.300, Commonwealth v. Fettes, 835 N.E.2d 639 (2005); Commonwealth of Mass. v. Burke, 457 N. E.2d 622 (Mass. 1983).)