The Human Body: A Deadly Weapon?

Learn when a body part may be a deadly weapon.

By , J.D., UC Berkeley School of Law

Using a deadly or dangerous weapon during the commission of a crime—such as assault or burglary—is often an aggravating circumstance that can increase punishment. You've no doubt heard that objects like guns, knives, and even cars constitute "deadly weapons." But did you know courts sometimes consider the human body a deadly weapon, too?

What Is a Deadly Weapon?

Certain items like guns, knives, axes, and clubs are deadly weapons in any situation. But even ordinary items that aren't inherently dangerous can be deemed dangerous or deadly when used to injure or threaten someone. Courts have found items like pocket knives, stones, and walking sticks to be deadly weapons when used to attack. Likewise, the human body itself isn't a deadly weapon, but it can be used as one. The determination rests on how it was used and how much harm resulted.

Can a Body Part Be a Deadly Weapon?

It depends on the state. Certain states specifically exclude the human body from the definition of "deadly weapon." For instance, in California, the body can't be a deadly weapon in the context of assault with a deadly weapon, even though it may inflict deadly force. Rather, deadly weapons are objects external to the body. (People v. Aguilar, 16 Cal.4th 1023 (1997).)

But courts in several states, like Texas, Ohio, and Kentucky, have determined the human body to be a deadly weapon under certain circumstances. For instance, courts have found the following body parts to be weapons: feet, hands, teeth, mouth, elbows, and knees.

How a Court Decides If a Body Part Can Be a Deadly Weapon

In deciding if a body part is a deadly or dangerous weapon, courts may consider the following factors:

  • the manner of blows, hits, or kicks
  • the degree of force used
  • the number of times the defendant struck, kicked, or bit the victim
  • the extent of the victim's injuries, and
  • the location of injuries on the victim's body.

Case-by-Case Considerations

In states where human body parts can be deadly weapons, courts determine whether they actually are on a case-by-case basis. Normally, an assault involving punching wouldn't make the hands deadly weapons. But if the punching was repeated, extremely severe, and caused permanent damage, a court would be more likely to rule otherwise. Courts have also declared hands to be deadly weapons when the attack involved strangling, suffocating, choking, pushing, or dragging.

Extent of Injuries

The more severe the attack and injury, the more likely it is that a court will rule that a hand or foot is a deadly weapon. Courts have found body parts to be deadly weapons when the victim:

  • was rendered unconscious,
  • suffered brain damage, or
  • had a fractured skull.

Courts have also considered the human body a deadly weapon when a kick or blow lifted the victim off the ground or there was enough force to rotate the victim's body 90 degrees.

Specialized Training or Equipment

In some states, such as Texas, a defendant's martial arts training may make the body a deadly weapon. But in many states, like Illinois, the defendant's training and skill—no matter how lethal—doesn't transform the body into a deadly weapon.

In cases where defendants have kicked victims, courts have often inquired into the type of shoes worn, considering their size, shape, weight, construction, and materials. In states like Arkansas, where a foot or ordinary shoe cannot ordinarily be a deadly weapon, some kinds of shoes (like steel-toed boots) may qualify. If a victim's kick-induced injuries are severe enough, the court may not require much evidence about the type of footwear.

Consult a Lawyer

If you've been charged with a crime—involving a deadly weapon or not—consult an experienced criminal defense attorney. A lawyer can advise you on the laws in your state, guide you through the criminal justice process, and defend and protect your rights.

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