From a legal standpoint, assault and battery often form one charge against a suspect. However, some suspects may merely be charged with assault. Anyone who is charged with battery, however, is essentially also guilty of assault.
The difference between the two lies in the definition of the terms. In legalese, assault is any reasonable threat to a person. The person who is committing the assault does not have to actually touch a person. But a reasonable and immediate threat to the person being assaulted must exist for a claim of assault. Battery, on the other hand, requires contact.
A few things are considered automatic assault without attaching battery. Pointing a gun at someone, or waving a weapon like a knife, or a potential weapon like a baseball bat are all considered assault. At that moment, anyone who is being threatened is being assaulted.
For both assault and battery to be present, one must wave a weapon, or one’s fists, or threaten physical harm, and then commit physical harm. The difference lies in whether the supposed criminal ever touched the victim. As soon as a threat becomes a blow, the crime is then assault with battery.
Since getting ready to throw a punch or picking up a baseball bat with threatening intent is a threat to a person, the two charges are rarely separated. Additionally, assault charges rarely stand alone because the courts tend to lean more toward trying suspects who have actually committed physical harm. This is largely because contact is easier to prove than a mere threat.
However, the term assault, on its own can be useful for protective purposes. A person who threatens violence but does not commit it, can often be subject to restraining orders. It is often very difficult to pursue a criminal case against someone who has made a verbal threat, yet it is fairly easy to get a temporary restraining order against someone who has committed assault. Should the person violate the restraining order and hurt those they threatened, the charge would be upgraded to assault and battery, since there would be a known record of assault.
Also, the threat of criminal prosecution for assault is frequently a great enough deterrent for would be batterers. This is helpful in middle and high school environments, where most children are unaware that a threat to physically harm another constitutes assault. Informing a child, who has assaulted another child, and the assaulter’s parents that assault is a criminal act, may be enough to get a child to cease harassing other people.
Another instance where the assault term is useful is in cases where a person claims justifiable homicide or justifiable assault and battery. If a person has felt only physically threatened by another, it may be argued that his or her actions to attack the assaulter and commit battery upon the assaulter were motivated by self-defense.
In a self-defense claim, intent to harm must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. However, it is possible to be cleared of charges where this can be clearly proven. This allows a potential victim to strike first if they feel a significant risk to themselves, rather than wait until an attacker has actually committed both assault and battery.