Assault? Battery? Did Will Smith commit a Crime when he slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars?

By: Timothy M. Black

Google “Will Smith Assault” and you will come up with over 575 million results; Google “Will Smith Battery” and that number gets cut by almost 60% to yield just over 100 million results (at the time of publishing). By now, you are well aware of “the slap heard ’round the world.” We watched in stunned silence last weekend when Hollywood A-Lister Will Smith marched onto the Oscars stage and open-hand slapped Comedy A-Lister Chris Rock across the face, turned around, fixed his tuxedo, and reclaimed his seat in the front of the auditorium where he shouted at Rock to “keep [his] wife’s name out of his [expletive deleted] mouth.” The crowd was stunned, the viewing audience was aghast, and the world was confused as to whether it was a comedy bit or a real-life crime of passion. There are endless think pieces, podcast episodes, deep-dives, and debates into whether Will Smith was right or wrong, whether Chris Rock was out of line, whether past trauma played a role in either party’s actions, and whether the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did enough during and after the incident. I’m not here to dig into that. I’m not even here to opine whether Will Smith should have been arrested. I’m here because I’m the son of a teacher, and I must not let a teachable moment go by without sharing one of its MULTITUDE of lessons. In this case, I’m here to help you understand the difference between “assault” and “battery.”

Since last Sunday, there has been an ongoing debate about whether Will Smith should have been or could have been arrested for assault, but not much debate about whether he should have or could have been charged with battery. It seems that when people say “assault,” they think they are talking about “battery.” If that’s you, it’s ok – it’s not your fault. Sometimes I think the law is intentionally complicated, at the hands of its practitioners, as a way of keeping said practitioners in business – it’s a kind of job security to keep everyone confused except the lawyers, I guess. With that being said, I want to explore the differences between “assault,” as defined in the dictionary, and “assault” and “battery” as defined in the Illinois Criminal Code. In doing so, I hope to put into context whether Will Smith could have been charged with either crime (though not whether he should have been charged – after all, we here at LauraLaw are not in the business of advocating for criminal charges.)

I will start the discussion with a couple of disclaimers (I am an attorney, after all):

  • First, nothing in this blog post – or any of our other blog posts – constitutes legal advice or creates an attorney-client relationship between the reader and this office. Every case is different, and we can not advise you about your case without knowing the evidence specific to it.
  • Second, the Oscars were held in California, where the laws are different than the laws in Illinois. I am not licensed to practice in California, so I will discuss the laws as they apply to an Illinois defendant. Just know that the concepts of “assault” and “battery” are very similar in California and in Illinois.

So, legally speaking, what is “assault” and what is “battery”?

  • Assault” is found in Section 12-1 of the Illinois Criminal Code, and is defined as follows: “A person commits an assault when, without lawful authority, he or she knowingly engages in conduct which places another in reasonable apprehension of receiving a battery.” 720 ILCS 5/12-1(a). Assault is a Class C Misdemeanor and carries a mandatory community service component to its sentence (unless the defendant is sentenced to a period of incarceration). 720 ILCS 5/12-1(b) and (c).
  • Battery” is found in Section 12-3 of the Illinois Criminal Code, and is defined as follows: “A person commits battery if he or she knowingly without legal justification by any means (1) causes bodily harm to an individual or (2) makes physical contact of an insulting or provoking nature with an individual.” 720 ILCS 5/12-3(a). Battery is a Class A Misdemeanor.

The problem is, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “assault” and “battery” as follows:

  • Assault” is “a violent physical or verbal attack.
  • Battery” is “the act of beating someone or something with successive blows.”

That’s not confusing, right? It’s almost as if a lawyer wrote the legal definitions to confuse non-lawyers. Essentially, everything you think of as “assault” or “assault and battery” or “battery” is (legally speaking) battery. A battery occurs when somebody touches someone else without permission and without legal justification. Assault, on the other hand, is when something you do makes someone reasonably worried that you are going to commit a battery against them. Essentially, assault is the threat, battery is the action.

To illustrate the difference, I will break the Will Smith/Chris Rock slap into sections. One of my favorite Instagram pages for lawyer memes is @litigation_god, and they posted this picture to illustrate the difference:

Posted to Instagram by @litigation_god

It’s a great meme, and it pierces the surface of the difference between assault and battery.

The picture on the left shows the moment right before Will Smith hit Chris Rock. You can’t see it in this version of the picture, but Will Smith is charging toward Chris Rock with a deliberate gait, he’s clearly upset, and his right arm is cocked back like he is about to strike. The look on Chris Rock’s face shows him bracing for the hit – it shows him in reasonable fear that he is about to “receive a battery.” Will Smith is committing an assault against Chris Rock. Even if Will Smith had not gone through with the slap (as I am sure he wishes would have happened), he still could have been charged with assault because it is not a requirement that he actually follow through with the slap, as long as Chris Rock’s fear that he will follow through is reasonable.

The picture on the right shows the moment right after Will Smith hit Chris Rock. It was clear from the sound that Will Smith’s hand made physical contact with Chris Rock’s face, and it was clear from Chris Rock’s reaction that the physical contact was made “in an insulting or provoking nature.” Will Smith committed a battery against Chris Rock. The fact that Chris Rock was not actually provoked into retaliating, and the fact that Chris Rock was not injured, does not mean that Will Smith’s actions don’t amount to battery.

If you were reading closely, you would know that the legal definitions I listed above both include the phrase “without lawful authority,” but I have not yet addressed such authority. What is it? Crimes against others (in addition to some other crimes not discussed here) can have what is called an affirmative defense. Two relevant affirmative defenses to the charges of assault and battery are “defense of others” and “self defense.” Your are likely familiar with the concept of self defense – if someone is attacking me, I do not have to let them hurt me, I can use force to stop them. As the name suggests, defense of others is essentially the same thing, except it becomes relevant when someone is trying to attack someone else, and I use force to stop them.

You may be wondering, based on that, why Will Smith could not claim “defense of others.” After all, he only went up on stage to smack Chris Rock because he was defending his wife’s honor against a joke about her physical appearance and medical condition. But the defense of others and self defense doctrines don’t allow you to use physical force to stop someone from making fun of you with words or insulting you with words only. The force used in defense of others or in self defense must be necessary to prevent physical harm, and must be proportionate to that physical harm. Think “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” and you will understand why self defense and defense of others do not provide cover in a situation like the one that unfolded on the Oscars stage.

Now, the analysis that would go into defending Will Smith if he were charged with assault or battery would be much more complex than a few paragraphs in the LauraLaw blog, and I can guarantee you that if you are facing assault or battery charges and you hire LauraLaw, we will pour hours into your case, will work diligently to analyze any defenses you might have, and will work tirelessly to help you come to a conclusion that satisfies your expectations. Whether your case is getting international attention, or only the attention of the prosecutor charging you, we will treat you like the celebrity you are and work with you to navigate the complexities of the legal system.

If you find yourself under arrest, under investigation, or under the stigma of having been convicted of a crime, do not hesitate to contact us here at LauraLaw. One of our experienced attorneys will fight to protect your rights, defend your case, and expunge or seal your record. In the meantime, “keep [Will Smith’s] wife’s name out of your [expletive deleted] mouth,” or risk getting assaulted, battered, or both.

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