Warm weather has finally arrived in Central Ohio. Many people are taking advantage of this beautiful spring by hosting parties, going to local festivals and in general just being out and about more. However, as the temperature rises and social drinking increases unfortunate consequences frequently occur. One such consequence is an increase of assault charges due to people getting together, drinking, and then fighting.
Assaults and fights can occur almost anywhere and anytime- especially when the alcohol is flowing and people are gathered. My clients often are surprised that getting involved in a “simple bar fight” can end up with an assault charge and arrest. As such, a review of Ohio law is worthwhile to avoid the consequences of jail or even a prison sentence.
Let’s first look at how the law defines assault. Simple or misdemeanor assault in Ohio is set forth in R.C. 2903.13 and defines that offense as follows: “no person shall knowingly cause or attempt to cause physical harm to another”. Committing this offense is a misdemeanor of the first degree and carries with it a potential penalty of 6 months in jail and a $1000 fine.
This sounds simple but rarely is the law so simple. The statute carries a number of “victim categories”, meaning assaulting certain people can elevate the charge to a felony. For example, an assault on a police officer, corrections officer, school teacher or administrator, children services caseworker, court investigator, or health care professional can lead to a felony offense. Therefore, if an irate parent gets into a shoving match with the high school football coach who is a teacher or school administrator over Junior’s playing time, then that parent could be charged with a felony and face prison-even if no injuries were sustained.
A felony can also occur if the victim suffers serious physical injury or a deadly weapon is used. A punch that lands and causes a minor injury is a misdemeanor. But that same punch that lands and breaks a jaw or damages the eye becomes a felonious assault which is a felony of the second degree and carries with it a possible sentence of 8 years in prison. Likewise, a felonious assault can occur if a deadly weapon is used. For example, if a person is struck with a beer mug, but sustains no injury, a felonious assault is still committed because a “beer mug” is a deadly weapon under Ohio law.
Interestingly enough, under Ohio law, assaults upon “peace officers”, as defined in R.C. 2935.01 are always felony offenses. The definition of “peace officer” is so broad that almost any person that has authority to enforce even civil violations, i.e., housing code violations, wildlife officers, and even tax revenue agents fall under this definition. So any assault, no matter how minor (a push or shove) is automatically a felony.
Now, let’s look at self-defense. I find that almost everyone is confused when it comes to “self-defense” and the law in a “bar fight” type scenario. Many people believe that if they can just get the other person to “swing first” then all rules are off and they can beat up that person with no consequence. That is simply not the case.
Ohio law states that in non-life threatening situations, a person can use non-lethal force when he was not at fault in creating the situation and had reasonable grounds to believe that he was in immediate danger of bodily harm. However, self-defense cannot be proven if the person asserting the defense started the confrontation.
For example, let’s say that John, a drunk guy in a bar, sees his girlfriend talking to another man. John becomes angry, approaches the other man, threatens and pushes him, and then when the other man moves toward him, John throws and lands a punch to his face causing serious injury. John has not only committed a felonious assault but his self-defense claim is weak because the facts show that he started the situation by approaching and threatening the other man. In addition, the size difference between the combatants is important in a self-defense claim. The Judge and jury may have trouble believing a self-defense claim if the defendant looks like an NFL linebacker and the victim looks like a tax accountant. To prevail on a self-defense claim, your belief of imminent harm must be reasonable in light of many factors including the size of the “dogs in the fight”.
In conclusion, Ohio law allows a person to defend themselves and use non-lethal force when in imminent fear of bodily harm. But in most instances, discretion is the better part of valor and not throwing the punch and leaving the premise is better than a confrontation that could lead to criminal charges.