The word “assault” usually conjures images of punches, kicks, and slaps. In other words, violence. But if you’ve been charged with assault in the District of Columbia, the definition of assault is much broader and often surprising to defendants. Because you can be charged with assault in Washington, D.C., simply for laying your hands on another person, if that contact is unwanted. Grabbing someone’s arm to prevent them from leaving a room, poking them in the chest during a heated argument, or even knocking something out of their hands can constitute an assault.

Perhaps the most confused D.C. assault defendants, are those who find themselves charged with assault where no contact was ever made. That’s because there is a charge known as “Intent to Frighten Assault.” All that’s required to be guilty of this type of assault is that you commit a threatening act that reasonably would create a fear of immediate injury. The government must also prove that the defendant intended to create the fear and that he or she has the apparent ability to injure the complaining witness. So if you intend to scare someone into thinking you’re going to hurt them, and it looks like you could actually hurt them, you could be charged with assault. Keep in mind, however, that the prosecutor must prove that the defendant made an actual threatening act—words are not sufficient to prove assault.

Unlike DUIs or drug possession cases, assault prosecutions usually rely on the testimony of a civilian victim and/or civilian witnesses. Rarely do police officers witness alleged assaults first-hand. What this means for a defendant charged with assault is that his or her D.C. assault lawyer has a chance to interview witnesses to the alleged act prior to trial. It also means that assault trials tend to come down to the credibility of those witnesses. Often, there will be many versions of the event presented at trial, and the judge will have to determine which one is the most credible.

Determining credibility in assault cases can be tricky, and that’s because most of them have one element in common: alcohol. I would conservatively estimate that 90% of the D.C. or northern Virginia assault cases I’ve defended have involved drunk defendants and/or drunk witnesses. They often occur at bars, clubs, or parties, or on the streets after the bars close. Often that means that the alleged victim, witnesses, and defendant can’t remember exactly what happened. That’s usually good for defendants, rather than prosecutors because the burden of proof falls on the government. If the judge has doubts that the witnesses were sober enough to recall what happened, then a not-guilty verdict should follow.

Besides attacking the credibility of witnesses, there are various legal defenses to assault. The most common defenses are self-defense, and defense of others. D.C. and Virginia recognize the right of their citizens to use a reasonable amount of force if they actually believe they are in imminent danger of bodily harm and if there are reasonable grounds for that belief. This right also applies to your ability to defend a third-party, your friend, your spouse, etc. Self-defense cases can be tricky, and your D.C. area assault lawyer will discuss with you whether it is a viable defense in your case.

Because they rely so heavily on civilian testimony, and often include self-defense claims, assault cases often go to trial.

If you have been charged with assault, you want an experienced D.C. trial lawyer in your corner. Contact Jay Mykytiuk at JPMLegal for a free consultation.