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Defenses to Assault Charges in Huntsville & Madison County, Alabama

Below is a list of defenses that apply in assault cases. This list is not exhaustive, but it should give you an idea of some of the defenses raised in these types of cases.

1. Self-defense and defense of others.

Under Alabama law, you have a right to use reasonable force to protect yourself or even another person from what you reasonably believe to be the imminent use of unlawful physical force by another person. However, you can only use reasonable force. In other words, you can't use an elephant gun against an ant. The critical issue in a self-defense claim is whether or not the force used was reasonable under the circumstances.

So, let's give an example. Hank is shaking his fist at Frank and yelling that he's going to beat the stuffing out of Frank. Hank is standing at the farthest end of a football field while he yells at Frank, who is at the other end. Frank cannot pull out a handgun and shoot Hank under these circumstances because this would be considered an unreasonable use of force under the circumstances. On the other hand, if Hank pulled out a handgun from the same distance and was threatening to kill Frank, it is far more likely that, if Frank shoots him, Frank's actions would be considered to be reasonable self-defense.

Alabama also does not require a person to retreat; this is often referred to as stand your ground laws. If Hank is approaching Frank and Hank is threatening Frank with a butcher knife, Frank does not have a duty to retreat. Alabama differs from some states in this regard. In some states, states a person has an obligation to try to retreat.

Self-defense can either be raised in a pretrial motion by a lawyer or presented during the trial. If a motion is filed before the trial hearing would be conducted to determine if the accused person reasonably used self-defense. If the judge agrees, it is a bar for further prosecution, and the case is over. As a matter of strategy, some lawyers will choose not to do this and wait until the evidence is presented at trial and raise the issue to a jury. There are a number as a variety of reasons; lawyers choose to do this. They may feel that the particular judge is unlikely to grant their motion, and they may not want the prosecution to have a pretrial opportunity to cross-examine their client. They may want to wait until additional evidence is heard during the trial before they determine whether or not they wish to raise this issue.

2. Identity

Sometimes the issue is not whether or not a person was assaulted but whether or not the accused person is the one who did the assault. For example, in a barroom brawl, it may not be clear who committed the actual assault. Witnesses for the state may not be able to provide clear and credible evidence. There may be conflicting evidence supporting the defendant's claim that he is not the responsible party.

3. Intent

A person may be responsible for injury to the other party, but they may lack criminal intent. Once again, an example may help. Hank and Frank are working on a farm together. Hank is cutting some wood with a chainsaw. Hank and Frank are not friends. Frank is holding a log while Hank is cutting it with the chainsaw. Hank cuts off Frank's hand.

Would Hank be guilty of any degree of assault under Alabama law? This depends upon what Hank's intent was (or wasn't and which version of assault Hank is charged with. The most serious crime he could be charged with would be assault, first. The prosecution would charge them with this if they thought that he intentionally cut off Frank's hand. If the state thought that Hank was acting recklessly, they would charge him with assault second, and, if they thought he was acting with criminal negligence, they would charge him with assault third. In a trial, the jury would decide if Hank acted with criminal intent level. If the jury is not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Hank acted with any criminal intent, he would be found not guilty.

Lack of intent is frequently raised as a defense in an assault case. Sometimes this can be a complete defense; at other times, it may only be a partial defense, meaning the accused may be convicted of a lesser degree of assault. To use our example, if the jury was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Hank intentionally cut off Frank's hand, but they thought that his behavior was criminally negligent, Hank would be found guilty of assault third, but he would be acquitted of assault first. Given that the range of punishment for assault first is from 2 to 20 years in prison and that the maximum sentence for assault third is not more than one year, this would result in much less serious consequences for Hank.

4. Defense of property.

In some instances, a person can use physical force to defend their property. Alabama considers a man's home his castle. Thus, if you are at home minding your own business and Bob the burglar breaks into your house, you would have a defense if you used physical force against him. Be aware, every case is judged on its merits - the defense of property is not always an absolute defense; it depends on the case's circumstances. Self-defense used against an uninvited intruder to one's home or dwelling typically would not apply to other forms of property; for example, if somebody is trespassing on your land, that does not give you grounds to shoot them.

5. Lack of injury or insufficient proof of injury.

The crime of assault requires "physical injury." As a general rule, the more serious the injury is, the greater the degree of assault.

The lowest form of assault, assault third, only requires physical injury. If there was no physical injury, the crime of assault has not occurred.

Some versions of felony assaults (assault second and assault first) require proof of "serious physical injury."

What is a serious physical injury under Alabama law?

Alabama defines "serious physical injury" as a physical injury which creates a substantial risk of death, or which causes serious and protracted disfigurement, protracted impairment of health, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily organ.

In some assault cases, the issue is whether or not the injury meets the legal definition of "serious physical injury." Typically, this is what I would refer to as a "partial" defense. In other words, if this is the only defense raised, it may mean that the accused person is not guilty of first-degree or second-degree assault, but they still could be found guilty of a lesser degree of assault. Of course, this defense can be raised with other defenses.

6. Mental health defenses

If someone is suffering from a mental disease or defect to the extent they cannot be held legally accountable for their actions; this can serve as a defense in an assault. A somewhat related issue is whether or not the person is even competent to stand trial. Under Alabama law, if a person is not competent to stand trial and cannot be restored to competency, the case cannot go forward. If a person is competent to proceed to trial but, at the time of the offense, they were suffering from some mental disease or defect that impacted their ability to understand right from wrong, this can be raised as a defense.

7. Time-or "justice delayed."

While not an actual defense, it is not uncommon for defense lawyers to intentionally drag a case on for as long as they can. The reason for this is that the delay often serves to the benefit of the person accused. That's because witnesses forget, move away, or don't care. I had a terrible case when I was a prosecutor where the defendant gouged out the victim's eye with a gun's barrel. Not only did I want to prosecute this case, but I also wasn't willing to make any generous offer, given the circumstances. The defense delayed the case for quite some time. The case was delayed so long that it was reached after I had left the District Attorney's Office, and the defendant's original lawyer had died. By the time the case got to court, there was a new prosecutor and a new defense lawyer. The defendant won the case - he got away with gouging the other fellow's eye out. Why? Because the new prosecutor was unable to locate the victim.

So, while "delay" may not be a recognized defense, it certainly can help the accused. Bear in mind this sword cuts both ways, however. For example, there might be a case in which a defense witness could establish a claim of self-defense. Still, if the case is delayed a significant amount of time, their witness may move away or become otherwise unavailable.

8. Special defenses

Certain special defenses will only apply to certain facts circumstances. For example, Alabama law protects certain officials from assaults while they are engaged in performing their duties. So if a police officer is trying to arrest Bruiser's brother, Buster, and Bruiser doesn't want him arrested and jumps in stopped the police officer, thereby causing an injury to the officer, he would be charged with assault second because Alabama law protects police officers from assaults while in performance of their official duties. But if the police officer was in plainclothes and if Bruiser just thought someone was attacking his brother and was rushing to his aid, Bruiser could raise this is a defense to the charge of assault second.

9. Victim issues

Sometimes the victim winds up being the best witness for the defense. This can happen for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the victim and the accused are good friends, and the victim asks the prosecutor to drop or reduce the charges, or sometimes, the victims refused to cooperate with the prosecution. Other times victims may themselves get in trouble, and their reputation is sufficiently tarnished that the prosecutor does not want to go forward. For example, I had an assault case where the victim had been convicted of child molestation. Although the state of Alabama was able to "find" their victim (since he was in prison), I guessed correctly that they were not particularly enthusiastic about marching a convicted child molester to court where my client claimed that he assaulted the child molester because the child molester was engaged in another sexual crime against my client's girlfriend.

Because every case is unique, your lawyer will evaluate it to determine what defenses best fit your particular circumstances.