Battery Under California law

Unlawful physical attacks on or against another person might be prosecuted as “Battery” in California. The word “battery” as a criminal charge can mean different things to different people based on what jurisdiction they live in, and the term is used differently on different types of courtroom or law-enforcement themed films and media, as well. Sometimes we hear “assault and battery” together as one charge, and what counts as “assault” in one state might count as “battery” in another, and vice versa. And in civil courts, where private parties are suing each other for money awards, the term might take a different meaning altogether. In California criminal cases, however, the California Penal Code tells us what counts as “battery” and what does not.

How A Person Could be Convicted of Battery in California

There are different types of Battery in California, and different sections of the California Penal Code define them all. The basic elements of Battery under California law are set forth in section 242 of the California Penal Code (“PC 242”). To convict a person of battery, the prosecution must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that

  1. The defendant used force or violence on the person of another AND
  2. the force was willful and unlawful.

This means that, at a jury trial, if the jury has any reasonable doubt on either of these things, after hearing all of the evidence, then the defendant must be found not guilty. If the jury has any reasonable doubt that he defendant used force or violence on another person, then that would be a not guilty verdict. The jury would also acquit a defendant if they had any reasonable doubt that the force used was willful or unlawful. If, however, the prosecution did prove both of these things, and the jury had no reasonable doubt, then the jury would find the defendant guilty. 

These elements-unlawful and willful use of force or violence against another-are common to all battery prosecutions in California. There are other types of Battery crimes of varying levels of seriousness. For example, it is a more serious type of Battery when the victim suffers serious bodily injury, and the law also generally considers a battery against certain types of professionals like EMTs, police officers, and firefighters, as more serious than other types of battery. These other versions of Battery are defined in section 243 of the Penal Code (“PC 243”).

Even though PC 242 and PC 243 use the words “force or violence”, a battery is not necessarily a severe physical attack, nor does it even have to be a type of direct physical touching of another person. It also does not matter whether the victim suffered any injury at all (though the more serious versions of battery do consider this). Spitting at someone could be considered a battery, even if the spit only touches the victim’s clothing, if considered offensive enough. A person who throws a rock or shoots a gun at someone could also be said to have committed battery, because even though they do not touch another person directly with their own hands, they still caused another person to be touched with physical force or violence. For the same reasons, striking somebody with a stick or a blade could be considered battery as well even when the defendant’s physical person never actually touches the victim’s. 

The force used also has to be “willful and unlawful.” Examples of “lawful” force would be when a police officer arrests someone; we allow them to do this as part of their jobs, under the law. Another example would be when one of us uses force or violence in self-defense or in defense of others (see below). 

A person “willfully” uses force when they intentionally do the thing that causes force or violence to the other person; it does not matter whether the defendant specifically intended to harm the victim or even commit a crime. For this reason, Battery in California is often called a “general intent crime”; a person charged with Battery cannot argue that they were not trying to hit, touch, or hurt the victim. All the prosecution has to prove is that the defendant deliberately did whatever caused force or violence to touch the victim. Sometimes battery is committed when the defendant goes right for the victim and intentionally, for example, punches them in the face. But it is also a battery under California law when the defendant walks into a crowded room, closes their eyes, flails their arms around and hits somebody. It does not matter that the defendant was not “targeting” the victim, nor does it matter that the defendant was “not trying” to hit them. All that the matters is that the defendant intentionally did whatever caused the force or violence to meet the victim.


Possible Defenses to a Battery Charge in California

Like in many criminal cases, the defense could respond to a battery charge by showing that the alleged crime never occurred, or that if it did, the defendant did not do it. The defense could argue that no one ever used force or violence on the alleged victim and that they are just making their whole story up. Or, the defense could argue that even if someone did commit a battery against the victim, it was not the defendant and so the witnesses are mistaken about who committed the crime, or perhaps they are lying about the defendant’s role in the crime as part of a more complicated series of events. A well-prepared defense attorney should be willing to explore all areas of the prosecution’s evidence, as well as any possible defense evidence, to argue how or why the evidence against the defendant is not credible.

Other possible defenses to a battery charge are interwoven with the elements explained above. One example is self-defense. Any force or violence used must be “unlawful” in order to count as battery, and it is lawful to use force or violence in self-defense in California. If the defense successfully argues that the defendant reasonably believed that the force used was necessary to prevent imminent bodily harm to themselves, and the force used was a proportionate response under the circumstances, then the defendant should be found “not guilty” of battery.

Please note that, in a “self-defense” case, the defendant does not necessarily have to show that the alleged victim was, in fact, threatening the defendant or that they would have harmed the defendant if given a chance. Rather, the defendant need only show that they “reasonably believed” that the alleged victim was threatening them and that the force used was needed in order to stop it. Also, the defense does not have to put forward any evidence in its own “side” of the case to succeed on a self-defense claim. Instead, they can show or suggest a self-defense claim through the physical evidence or witnesses that the prosecution puts forward. And furthermore, is the burden of the prosecution to disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt once the defense raises it at trial. So, if a jury hears all of the evidence, and they have any reasonable doubt that the defendant might have in fact been acting in self-defense, then they would find that defendant “not guilty” of battery.

“Defense of others” is another possible defense to a battery charge in California. This is the same as self-defense, only the defendant uses force to protect others, not themselves. Like self-defense, force used in defense of others is a lawful use of force in California and so will not count as a battery under PC 242 or PC 243.

A lack of “willfulness” is also a defense to a battery charge. Even though the defendant does not have to “specifically intend” to harm the victim to be guilty of battery, they still need to act “willfully” at some level. If the defendant causes force or violence to someone involuntarily, then there is no battery. A good example would be if the defendant were standing on a crowd, and someone from behind pushes into the defendant, causing the defendant to strike the victim. This would not be a “willful” application of force or violence so that defendant would not be guilty of battery.

California law also allows some exceptions to the battery law for parental discipline. Under Penal Code 273(d) (“PC 273(d)”), a parent may use force against a child for disciplinary purposes so long as it is “reasonable” and “not excessive” under the circumstances, without being guilty of battery.

For some of the more serious versions of battery in the California Penal Code, where the defendant is charged with committing a battery against certain public servants or professionals, the defendant may be able to “downgrade” the charge to a less serious form of battery by showing that they did not know, or had no reason to know, that the victim was a type of public servant that is protected under PC 273. If a defendant strikes someone, and then only later learns that the victim was an off-duty police officer out of uniform, then that defendant should not be treated as someone who committed battery “against a police officer.”

Possible Sentences and Jail Time for Battery in California

As mentioned above, there are many different types of “battery” under California law of varying levels of severity, all of which require proof that the defendant wilfully and unlawfully used force or violence against another. At the lowest level, misdemeanor battery, not against any public servant, is punishable by anywhere from 0 days-6 months incarceration. Misdemeanor battery against those public servants specified under the law, where no injury results, can be punished by 0 days-1 year incarceration. Where battery against a public servant results in injury, then the charge is a felony and it is punishable by 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years. Battery that causes serious bodily injury is punishable by 2 years, 3 years, or 4 years incarceration.