Is It Ever Legal to Punch Someone in the Face?

By: Dave Roos  | 

Will Smith slaps actor Chris Rock
Actor Will Smith (R) slaps actor Chris Rock onstage during the 94th Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California, on March 27, 2022. Smith was reacting to a joke Rock told about Smith's wife. ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

It was the slap heard around the world. When Chris Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith's shaved head during the telecast of the 94th Oscars ceremony March 27, it elicited an eye roll from her and a much more heated reaction from her husband Will. He approached the stage, slapped Rock in the face and then told Rock, "Keep my wife's name out of your ****ing mouth!" Rock didn't retaliate physically nor did he press charges later, CNN reported. Reaction on social media was split between those who applauded Will for defending Jada (who has alopecia) and those who thought he was out of order for his attack on Rock.

Face-punching in movies and TV shows is a well-known cliché. But in real life, clocking someone is not only a great way to break your hand, but also in the majority of cases, illegal. Is there ever a situation in which you are legally justified to pop someone in their mug?

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In 2017, we took the question to Micah Schwartzbach, a California criminal defense lawyer and managing editor at Nolo. In short, the answer is "yes" — but the punch has to be made in self-defense.

"In general, you have to not be the aggressor and you have to reasonably believe that force is necessary to protect yourself from some imminent violence," said Schwartzbach. "And on top of that, you have to use a proportionate amount of force."

There are some really important points for distinguishing between a legal and illegal punch. No.1, you can't strike first. That would make you the aggressor. It's hard to argue self-defense when you're literally on the attack.

Second, you can only punch someone if they've already taken a swing at you, or if you believe you're about to be hit. Schwartzbach said that it's also possible to claim self-defense if you punch your attacker while he's winding up to smack you, but you'd need some fast hands.

And third, you can't escalate the fight. If the drunk guy at the bar doesn't like the way you're looking at his girlfriend (yes, another cliché) and shoves you on the shoulder, you're not justified to break a bottle over his head. You're probably not even justified to punch him. Or slap him. Or kick him in the goodies.

"Self-defense applies where the harm is imminent," Schwartzbach explained. "The theory is that you don't have an alternative." The same is true if you're coming to the defense of another person. If you reasonably believe that they're in imminent danger of violence and you have no other alternative, you can step in and start punching.

Fighting Words

What about the "fighting words" argument? Aren't you allowed to defend yourself if someone verbally accosts, provokes or threatens you?

"That's perhaps the most common misconception about self-defense," said Schwartzbach.

Even though "fighting words" aren't protected as free speech, they're still not a legal justification for violence. Schwartzbach said that even if someone threatens you and said they're going to beat you up or kill you, the law doesn't give you the right to slug them.

"It's one thing for it to be 'understandable' that someone threatens to kill you and you punch them in the face," said Schwartzbach. "But if there's no indication that the person was about to harm you in some way and you had time to go talk to the police, you're likely not going to have a legal defense."

Which brings up an important caveat when discussing the "legality" of anything. While criminal law regarding self-defense is pretty consistent across the United States, the enforcement and interpretation of the law varies state by state, precinct by precinct and case by case.

"With so much of this kind of stuff, police and prosecutorial discretion comes into play," Schwartzbach said. "If you're in a big metro area and there's a scuffle at a bar and someone got punched, and the prosecutors are otherwise flooded by cases, and no one seems to be really hurt, they may not pursue the case. As with everything, it depends on the people you're dealing with."

And even if the district attorney's office decides to press charges, ultimately it's a jury that's going to decide if you truly acted in self-defense and if your punch was justified. In a criminal trial for assault and battery, the prosecutor has to disprove "beyond a reasonable doubt" that you threw the punch in self-defense. That's going to depend on witness testimonies, police evidence and your word against the dude with the black eye.

Here's the tricky part, though. Even if you are acquitted of criminal charges for punching someone, you can still be sued in civil court. If the person you punched sustained a serious injury, missed work or suffered psychological trauma from the incident, he can sue you for damages. You won't see that one in the movies.

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Originally Published: Feb 16, 2017

Punch In The Face FAQ

Can you hit someone if they provoke you?
Just because someone insulted you or said something rude or mean doesn’t mean you have the right to hit them. However, if physical harm is imminent or they’ve already hit you once, you may have a legal right to self defence and can hit them back.
Is punching someone illegal?
Punching another person is illegal with very few exceptions. It’s illegal if you’re the aggressor and hit the person first.
What kind of crime is punching someone?
Punching or striking another person is considered a crime of battery. In the case of punching someone, it’s likely to be classified as either simple battery, which is a misdemeanour, or aggravated battery, which is a felony crime.
Can you sue if someone punches you?
You are well within your rights to sue someone if they punched you. You can file criminal charges that involve fines and imprisonment, or file a civil lawsuit to recover damages. Some victims of assault do both.

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