Assault is a crime that often seems hollow because no one is physically injured, although no prosecutor would so characterize it. Assault, as defined by Penal Code § 240, is “an unlawful attempt, coupled with the present ability, to commit a violent injury on the person of another.” It is not necessary that defendant inflict any injury at all. Assault is a misdemeanor.
To be guilty of assault, one must willfully commit an act that by its nature would directly and probably result in force to another. “Willfully” means intentionally or on purpose. A good example of this might be someone throwing a rock forcefully and directly at someone’s head from close range. A “violent injury” is a harmful or offensive injury. Spitting at another is often characterized as an assault, as is attempting to punch another person, but missing.
Assault has been the subject of many courts struggling with exactly what mental state is required. In 2001, in People v. Williams (2001) 26 Cal.4th 779, 790 (endnote 5), the California Supreme Court held that “assault does not require a specific intent to cause injury or a subjective awareness of the risk that an injury might occur. Rather, assault only requires an intentional act and actual knowledge of those facts sufficient to establish that the act by its nature will probably and directly result in the application of force against another.” Mere recklessness or criminal negligence is not enough.
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