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What Is Assault?

David Pisarra May 9, 2017


Under California Penal Code 240 assault is an action that may inflict physical harm or unwanted touching on someone else. Further it describes assault using 4 points, or elements that must be proven for an assault to have taken place. They are as follows:

  • You did an act that, by its nature, would probably result directly in the application of force to someone else;

  • You did that act willfully;

  • When you acted, you were aware of facts that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the act would directly and probably result in the application of force to that person; and

  • When you acted, you had the present ability to apply force to that person.

Notice how no actual physical violence is needed to satisfy all the elements of this definition. The only thing necessary is the perception that violence will occur. Let’s go through an example and you can see how this scenario plays out.

Dave and I get into an argument at work. We have words with each other and it escalates quickly. I lose my temper and get right up in Dave’s face and begin screaming. I am standing inches apart from him, with my fists balled up in anger, yelling at him. Have I just committed an assault?


Lets takes the first element of assault – “You did an act that, by its nature, would probably result directly in the application of force to someone else.” I have done several acts that satisfy this element. First, I am in David’s face inches away from him. Second, I have my fists balled up in anger, which is action. Finally, I am yelling.

The second element is satisfied because this was no accident. I did those things willfully.

The third element is satisfied because as a result of my action, a reasonable person would believe that my behavior would result in an application of force.

Finally, I am a able bodied male fully capable of applying force to David.

According to the definition of assault, as defined by the Penal code, there is a range of scenarios which could be deemed assault. The common misconception is that one needs to inflict physical violence on a person to be guilty of assault. As you can see that’s not the case. You don’t even need to touch another person, just the threat that you may harm that person is enough to justify an assault charge.

To prove an assault charge in a criminal matter one must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this occurred. In a civil matter, the standard of proof is much lower. Only a preponderance of evidence has to be proved.