Is it considered assault to squirt someone with water from a spray bottle in New York? Can it depend on the outcome?

  • On a hot day on the sidewalk probably not. If you squirted a moving bicycle rider in the face and could cause them to wreck then to me that is assault. – paparazzo Dec 14 '15 at 22:15
up vote 2 down vote accepted

tl;dr: It's doubtful that this would classify as assault in most cases. That said, there is a chance it might result in an assault conviction depending on how it happens. I'll focus on these more unusual cases below.

Background

New York is a little different than a number of other jurisdictions in the . What would typically be called battery is called "assult" in New York, and what would usually be called assault is called "menacing."

N.Y. classifies assault in three degrees. First degree assault is the most serious, but what we're after is third degree assault.

It is governed by N.Y. Pen. Law § 120.00:

A person is guilty of assault in the third degree when:

  1. With intent to cause physical injury to another person, he causes such injury to such person or to a third person; or
  2. He recklessly causes physical injury to another person; or
  3. With criminal negligence, he causes physical injury to another person by means of a deadly weapon or a dangerous instrument.

Assault in the third degree is a class A misdemeanor.

This is different from the common law elements of battery which are often summarized as an intentional, offensive, unprivileged contact. In particular, N.Y. allows three avenues to assault.

Most of the time squirting water from your run-of-the-mill water bottle isn't going to trigger any of these. However there are situations in which you might trigger one of these:

  • It's not hard to make a case that squirting a driver or bicyclist--so as to imperil the operation of the vehicle or bike--would qualify as reckless behavior, where recklessness is a significant deviation from what a law abiding citizen would do. If the driver or bicyclist is injured as a result, it likely satisfies the elements for 3d degree assault (via the second avenue)
  • But I wouldn't confine this to people operating modes of transportation. Imagine a squirting a pedestrian who slips and falls; imagine someone's eye being injured; imagine someone walking into a pole
  • Likewise, under the third avenue, criminal negligence is an even lower standard than recklessness (i.e. it's easier to show something was negligent than reckless). The tradeoff is that you'd need to consider the water bottle a dangerous instrument. That's a stretch, but if there were an injury you'd certainly have a creative attorney trying to make it fit. If someone were actually injured, then in hindsight that attorney would say it was, in fact, dangerous. As a matter of fact, there's a very inconclusive line of cases that tried to decide what constituted a dangerous object. They didn't really produce conclusive results (coffee urns were dangerous), so it's also possible the court might look more to outcome than to the inherent characterization of the bottle.

Side note: it's always best to avoid doing things without the person's consent.

  • So basically "New York assault" is something totally different from for example "UK assault" and possibly "California assault". Could you say if what I described in my answer (making a person fear a dangerous attack) would be a crime in New York, and which one? – gnasher729 Dec 15 '15 at 11:40
  • @gnasher729 Right, NY is set up a little differently. You'd probably be talking about something like 3d degree menace – Pat W. Dec 15 '15 at 11:47

How does the victim know that there is water in the bottle? And not some strong acid? I think there will be a difference between someone cleaning their windows and spraying someone with the same bottle they used for cleaning the windows, and some woman's jeaulous ex-boyfriend sneaking up on her in the night and spraying her in the face with fluid from an unknown container.

In UK law: "An assault is committed when a person intentionally or recklessly causes another to apprehend the immediate infliction of unlawful force."

So spraying water out of container labelled "acid" would be assault. Spraying water on a person after threatening them with an acid attack would most definitely be assault. If the victim expects to be injured then it is assault.

Even if the victim fully expects that the fluid is water, I could imagine that you would be charged with assault if a bride to be just spent two hours getting her hair and makeup done, and you destroy the work just before the wedding by spraying her with water.

  • 1
    ... or dimethyl mercury, or some other toxic substance that won't immediately reveal its adverse effects. – feetwet Dec 14 '15 at 19:47

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