Through its laws, California offers exceptional protection to vulnerable individuals and groups in society, including children and the elderly. The special protection also extends to people who are employed by the government to do specific public jobs. As part of their job, public officials such as politicians, peace officers, and judicial officers usually make policy decisions that are not necessarily popular with citizens. Since the nature of a public official's job involves making unpopular decisions, they may become an assault target for the members of the public.
While California has criminalized all forms of assault and battery, compared to simple assault, assault on a public official attracts harsher penalties. If you are in Los Angeles, CA, and the state has accused you of assaulting a public official, you will require a skilled and experienced criminal defense attorney to defend your rights. At The LA Criminal Defense Law Firm, we have experience in defending such cases, and we will not only protect your rights, but we will also ensure that you avoid the severe consequences of an assault on a public official's conviction.
Who is a Public Official?
To understand what constitutes an assault on a public official, one needs to know who is a public official. California law defines a public official as an individual who is a peace officer, a judicial officer or an affiliate member of the judiciary, and all members of the government, whether elected or appointed. California Penal Code 217 considers the President and the Vice President of the United States to be public officials. Other officials that California law considers to be public officials include U.S state governors, mayors, city council members, public defenders, peace officers, judges, jurors, and prosecutors. The law also considers the immediate family members of these officials, including spouses and children, to be public officials.
Legal Definition of Assault on a Public Official
According to California law, simple assault involves an unlawful attempt to injure someone violently. You do not have to hurt the person to be guilty of assault. Assault is different from a battery in that the battery involves actual bodily harm and not just an attempt. California treats the two crimes differently, with simple assault being only a misdemeanor, whereas a battery can be a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the circumstances of the case. However, an assault on a public official attracts stiffer penalties as the law considers it an assault on the government. For the court to charge you with any form of assault, the prosecutor must prove the existence of some criminal elements in your actions. The elements include:
- You had a willful intent in carrying out your actions
- Your intended actions would have resulted in the use of force
- You had the ability to use force at the time of the intended act
- Your alleged victim had reasons to believe that you intended to use force or to be violent in your actions
In addition to the above criminal elements, an assault on a public official must also be intended in retaliation or to sabotage the performance of the officer's duties. Legally, an assault on a public official involves any unlawful attempt to violently injure a public official with the intent to prevent them from doing their official duties or in retaliation for the decisions they have made in the course of their job. This means that if you assault a public official for any other reason, the court can only charge you with simple assault. The twin motives of seeking revenge for or sabotaging the performance of the public official's duties are what differentiates assault on a public official from regular assault.
According to PC 217.1 (a), the court should charge the offense of assaulting a public official as a wobbler offense. The law differentiates assault on a public official and simple assault by the punishments due to each crime, with the former attracting severe penalties.
Examples of an Assault on a Public Official
The fact that there are different sets of people who work for the government means that there are varied cases of assaults on public officials. The legal definition, especially on the element of motive or intent, also helps to clarify the different situations that could see the court either charging you with regular assault or an assault on a public official.
Example 1: John is enraged by what he considers an unfair life imprisonment sentence to his brother following an attempted murder conviction. John holds that the judge was biased. He hatches a plan to physically attack the judge in retaliation for jailing his brother. John approaches the judge as he is leaving the office and attempts to injure him using a piece of furniture. However, the court's security detail manages to subdue John, and the judge sustains no injuries from the incident. Even though John did not manage to injure the judge, his mere attempt to harm the judge makes him guilty of an assault on a public official.
Example 2: During a night out with friends, Monica gets into an ugly argument with Sally, another night club patrons. As the argument becomes even more intense, Monica attacks Sally by throwing a wine glass at her. However, the wine glass misses Sally; hence she does not suffer any bodily harm. Later that evening, Monica and her friends find out that Sally is a local city council member. Since Monica did not know about Sally's role as a public official, her attack had nothing to do with Sally's duties as a city council member. While Monica is not guilty of an assault on a public official, she is guilty of regular assault as per the law. Essentially, merely attempting to injure someone qualifies as assault.
Elements of Assault on a Public Official
While the above examples are assaults on people employed by the government, it is the motive in each scenario that either makes it an assault on a public official or just a regular or a simple assault. The prosecutor has to establish the defendant's motive and the identity of the victim as a public official performing their official duties. For the court to find you guilty of an assault on a public official, these and other elements that make up the legal definition of the crime must be present. The elements include:
You Committed an Assault
The prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you assaulted the victim as defined by law. The law defines assault as an unlawful attempt to injure someone violently. The illegal attempt must also include a present ability to cause injury forcefully. Therefore, you commit an assault on a public official if you attempt to physically attack them in a way or with something likely to injure them. To prove an assault, the prosecutor must show the following:
- You intentionally attempted an unlawful act that would have violently injured the victim had it succeeded
- You intentionally meant to use physical force as part of your unlawful act
- The victim reasonably believed that your actions towards him/her were violent
- You had the ability to use force during the time of the unlawful act
The Assault was Against a Public Official or a Member of His/Her Immediate Family
The prosecution needs to prove that the victim of your assault is a current or former public official or an immediate family member of such an official as defined under California PC 217.1. Additionally, the prosecution must prove that you were aware that the alleged victim of your actions was a public official or an immediate family member of such an official. Otherwise, the fact that the victim is a public official may not be sufficient for the court to convict you of assaulting a public official if you did not know that he/she was a public official at the time of your alleged crime.
Motive or Intent of the Crime
The prosecution must prove in committing the assaultIn, you had a clear motive or intention. The prosecutor must show the court that you committed your unlawful acts either to prevent public officials from performing their official duties or in retaliation for something they had already done as part of their official duties. While the element provides that you are not guilty of assaulting a public official if you did not intend to prevent them from performing their official duties, you are still guilty of regular assault. Proving this element beyond a reasonable doubt is crucial for the prosecutor. However, the aspect of motive is also prone to abuse and may lead to unfair accusations.
Offenses Related to Assault on a Public Official
Some offenses are related to or tend to occur in similar circumstances with assault on a public official. In California, the courts charge these offenses alongside or instead of an assault on a public official. The offenses include:
- The battery on a public official - In this case, there is an actual unlawful and offensive physical contact or physical injury and not just an attempt to do so
- Regular or simple battery - The absence of some criminal elements in the above offense may reduce it to an ordinary battery
- Disturbing peace - In this case, the defendant attempts to fight or is involved in a public altercation like exchanging offensive words with a public official
- Resisting arrest - In this case, the defendant intentionally and violently resists, delays, or obstructs a police officer from legally arresting him/her. The defendant may also threaten to be violent against the arresting officer
- Aggravated assault - In this case, the defendant attempted to injure a public official using a deadly weapon, including a gun or a knife
Penalties for Assault on a Public Official
California's PC 217. 1(a) charges assault on a public official as a wobbler offense means that the court has discretion on whether your offense is a misdemeanor or a felony. However, the nature of your charges largely depends on the circumstances of your case and your criminal record. Similar to simple assault and battery, a felony conviction results in harsher punishment compared to a misdemeanor conviction. For a misdemeanor offense, the penalties include:
- A prison sentence of up to one year in county jail
- A fine of up to $1,000
- Both fine and imprisonment
- A summary probation
If the court convicts you with a felony offense, the potential penalties include:
- A prison sentence of between sixteen months and three years
- A fine of up to $10,000
- Both fine and imprisonment
- A felony or federal probation of between thirty-six and sixty months
Whether yours is a misdemeanor or a felony conviction, should you be sentenced to probation, the court would require you to fulfill several conditions. You would be required to report to the probation officer regularly. In some instances, the court may also need you to pay restitution to the victim. Failure to comply with the required conditions can lead to the revocation of your probation hence a stay of your original jail sentence.
In case the assault involved an attempted murder on a public official, you risk an enhanced prison sentence of fifteen years to life imprisonment. Whether your charge is a normal one or involves aggravating factors such as attempted murder, you need an experienced and skilled criminal defense attorney to defend your rights.
Common Defenses for Assault on a Public Official
Similar to all other criminal cases, California law presumes that you are innocent until proven guilty. Therefore, the prosecutor has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that your actions make you guilty of assault on a public official. Since defense begins from the point of arrest and continues to the trial day, it is critical to have an attorney from the start. Depending on the facts of your case, a competent criminal defense attorney should be able to apply the necessary legal defense strategies to ensure your charges are either reduced or even dismissed. Some of the common defenses in an assault case involving a public official include:
You did not Commit the Act as a Form of Retaliation or to Prevent the Officer from Performing their Duties
Your attorney can argue that you did not have a hidden motive, and your actions were not in retaliation or to prevent the alleged victim from performing their official duties. The motive or intent element is an essential element in the case, and the prosecutor must prove that you acted with these ulterior intentions. The prosecution should produce a witness to support their claims that your actions were in retaliation or prevention of the performance of official duties. As part of the defense, your attorney could argue that the victim and the witness misjudged your intentions. If the defense is successful and the prosecution is unable to prove you had ulterior intentions, the court may dismiss your charges. However, you are likely to face simple assault charges.
You did not Have The Ability to Use Force or Physically Injure the Alleged Victim
The fact that you were involved in an altercation with a public official does not necessarily mean that you could cause injuries to them. Depending on the circumstances of the dispute, you may be angry to the point of exchanging harsh words with a public official. To get your point across, you may even try to injure them. While your actions may lead to simple assault charges, the court should not charge you with assaulting a public official if you could not cause injuries to the victim.
Your attorney may argue that the fact it was impossible for you to physically injure your alleged victim due to their physical size or strength. In this case, the alleged victim may have been bigger, athletic, or stronger than you. If the defense is successful, the court may seek to prosecute you on lesser charges, including simple assault or the crime of disturbing the peace under California’s PC 415.
You Acted in Self-defense
In this case, your attorney will have to prove that you acted as a way of protecting yourself from imminent danger or harm. Since prosecutors are also public officials, they aggressively attack the self-defense strategy as they believe fellow public officials cannot break the law. For example, it may be hard to prove that your actions were to protect yourself against angry police who physically threatened you at a DUI checkpoint. While the court convicts many defendants of assaulting public officials, they often overlook the fact that public officials are human beings who may behave violently or aggressively towards citizens. The public official might have been the catalyst of your actions, and as a legal defense, you need to prove that you felt threatened, hence believed the public official wanted to harm you.
For the defense to be successful, your attorney needs to prove that you felt threatened, and you responded in self-defense. The attorney also needs to prove that under those circumstances, any reasonable person would have acted in the same way and used the same amount of force you used. If the defense is successful, your attorney should be able to demand the reduction of your charges or even your acquittal.
You were not Aware, and any Reasonable Person Would not have Known Either that the Alleged Victim was a Public Official
The knowledge that the alleged victim of your actions was a public official is a critical element and is necessary for the court to convict you with a PC 217 violation. Your attorney can argue that at the time of the alleged crime, you did not know that the victim was a public officer. For the court to convict you of assaulting a public official, the prosecution must prove that you knew that the victim was a public official carrying on their duties.
In most cases, a public officer performing their duties should have standard identifiers, including distinct clothing or uniform, documented identification such as police badges, and marked or official vehicles, including police cars and ambulances. Additionally, the alleged victim must have been carrying out official duties like issuing a ticket or arresting a suspect. Some situations like a house search by police investigators may also require public officials to identify themselves verbally. Your attorney could argue that you were not aware that the alleged victim was a public official since they failed to identify themselves as such, and they lacked the necessary standard identifiers. While a successful defense can lead to the reduction or dismissal of your initial assault charges, the court can still convict you of simple assault.
You are a Victim of False Accusations
Public officials are human beings and may misuse their positions to settle personal scores. This misuse may include falsely accusing others of assaulting them. Similar to the self-defense argument, prosecutors aggressively attack the false accusation defense. Whether the false accusations are a result of malice or just mistaken identity, your attorney needs to prove that you did not attempt to injure or harm the alleged victim physically. While false accusation defense is straightforward in some criminal cases, it may be hard to prove in others. However, a competent lawyer should be able to prove your innocence and get the court to acquit you.
Contact a Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me
Due to the nature of their work, including making and implementing unpopular policy decisions, public officials risk being assaulted in retaliation or prevention of the performance of their official duties. Consequently, assault on a public official in Los Angeles, California, is a serious crime with harsh punishments. In addition to stiff penalties, including imprisonment and hefty fines, the resultant criminal record will hurt your life.
Considering the seriousness of the charges, you need the services of a competent criminal defense attorney to stand any chance of reduced charges or even a dismissal. Our criminal defense attorneys at The LA Criminal Defense Law Firm have successfully defended Los Angeles residents facing assault and battery accusations, including assault on a public official. To learn more about our services, call us at 310-935-1675.