Definition of Assault in the State of California

In People v. Williams (2001) 26 Cal.4th 779, the California Supreme Court explained that although assault is statutorily defined as an attempted battery, it is distinct from an ordinary attempt crime. (Id. at p. 786.) The act constituting an ordinary criminal attempt need not be the last proximate or ultimate step towards commission of the substantive crime. (Ibid.) In contrast, an assault requires an act that immediately precedes a battery; i.e., an assault occurs whenever the next movement would, at least to all appearances, complete the battery. (Ibid.) Because the act for ordinary criminal attempt may be more remote than the act required for assault, criminal attempt requires a specific intent to commit the crime. (Ibid.) Assault, on the other hand, does not require a specific intent to injure because the assaultive act, by its nature, subsumes this intent. (Ibid.; see also People v. Colantuono (1994) 7 Cal.4th 206, 214-215 "Although the defendant must intentionally engage in conduct that will likely produce injurious consequences, the prosecution need not prove a specific intent to inflict a particular harm. . . . Because the offensive or dangerous character of the defendant's conduct, by virtue of its nature, contemplates such injury, a general criminal intent to commit the act suffices to establish the requisite mental state".) In People v. Chance (2008) 44 Cal.4th 1164, the California Supreme Court clarified the definition of assault set forth in Williams. In People v. Chance, the defendant was pointing a loaded gun while hiding from an officer behind a trailer, and when the officer approached the defendant from behind and ordered him to drop his weapon, the defendant lowered his gun and continued to flee. (Chance, supra, 44 Cal.4th at pp. 1168-1169.) Challenging his assault with a firearm conviction, the defendant argued the facts did not show the assault element of "present ability" to commit a battery because he would have had to turn, point the gun at the officer, and chamber a round before he could shoot at the officer. (Id. at p. 1171.) To support his argument, the defendant cited the language in People v. Williams (2001) 26 Cal.4th 779 requiring that the act immediately precede a battery and that the next movement appear to complete the battery. (Chance, at p. 1171.) Rejecting the defendant's contention, the Chance court explained that the Williams analysis was based on an evaluation of the intent (not the present ability) element, and it was designed to distinguish assault (which requires merely general intent because the act must be immediately antecedent to a battery) from ordinary criminal attempt (which requires specific intent because the act may be more remotely connected to the attempted crime). (Chance, at pp. 1167-1168, 1175.) The Chance court clarified that in the assault context, immediately does not mean instantaneously; rather, it simply means the defendant must have the ability to inflict injury on the present occasion. (Chance, supra, 44 Cal.4th at pp. 1168, 1171.) The defendant's action enabling him to inflict a present injury constitutes the actus reus of assault; there is no requirement that the injury would necessarily occur as the very next step in the sequence of events, or without any delay. (Id. at p. 1172.) Assault does not require a direct attempt at violence, but occurs whenever there is " 'any indirect preparation towards it, . . . such as drawing a sword or bayonet, or even laying one's hand upon his sword . . . .' " (Ibid.) Thus, when a defendant "equips and positions himself to carry out a battery, he has the 'present ability'. . . if he is capable of inflicting injury on the given occasion, even if some steps remain to be taken, and even if the victim or the surrounding circumstances thwart the infliction of injury." (Ibid.) "Although temporal and spatial considerations are relevant to a defendant's 'present ability'. . . it is the ability to inflict injury on the present occasion that is determinative, not whether injury will necessarily be the instantaneous result of the defendant's conduct." (Id. at p. 1171.) In short, the present ability element is satisfied when the defendant has attained the means and location to strike immediately. (Id. at pp. 1168, 1175-1176.)