Vehicular assault is the criminal version of a car accident. In Arizona, it is called specifically called Vehicular Aggravated Assault (sometimes just Aggravated Assault). Most often it is charged when there is a car accident, a person is severely injured, and the cause of the accident was impairment by alcohol or drugs. Less often, it is charged in cases where there is no impairment, but extremely reckless driving is alleged.
What makes a civil car accident, where the remedy is solely money, into a criminal case is what the law refers to as mens rea. Literally translated from Latin the term means a “guilty mind.” However, in a courtroom, the term is used more broadly. A person’s means rea is the mental state behind the person’s actions.
If you strike another person in the face causing them injury – is that a crime? The law answers that question by determining what was your mental state at the moment you caused their injury. An unintentional blow to another’s face, that was unavoidable, is simply an accident. On the other end of the spectrum, a punch that was intended to connect with a person’s nose is a criminal assault.
Arizona does not have a specific law for vehicular assault. The crime requires violating a combination of several statutes. A starting point is our state’s felony assault law.
Arizona’s Assault Laws
The primary statute used to charge Vehicular Assault in Arizona is Arizona Revised Statute (A.R.S.) 13-1204. The statute lists several actions that result in a felony assault. It provides: “A person commits aggravated assault if the person commits assault as prescribed by section 13-1203 under any of the following circumstances…”.
A.R.S. 13-1203, referenced in the statute, is Arizona’s misdemeanor assault law. Accordingly, a felony assault – first requires a misdemeanor assault – as a predicate to a felony assault. Put another way, Arizona requires a misdemeanor assault as a foundation for a felony assault.
Misdemeanor assault, as defined A.R.S. 13-1203, states a person commits assault by:
1. Intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causing any physical injury to another person; or
2. Intentionally placing another person in reasonable apprehension of imminent physical injury; or
3. Knowingly touching another person with the intent to injure, insult or provoke such person.
As you can see, the law provides several possible mens rea (mental states) that can violate the statute. It is not just intentional conduct that is criminalized. Essentially, the Arizona legislature has made a car accident an assault, if your actions are either recklessly or knowingly cause another person’s injury.
Vehicular Assault is Aggravated Assault
Thus, once it is determined a person’s actions have violated one of these three scenarios, then a vehicular assault analysis turns back to A.R.S. 13-1204. This statute asks the question – did the assault occur under one of the specified “circumstances”? Then the statute provides eleven “circumstances.” In vehicular assault cases the three (3) most likely to apply are:
1. If the person causes serious physical injury to another.
2. If the person uses a deadly weapon or dangerous instrument.
3. If the person commits the assault by any means of force that causes temporary but substantial disfigurement, temporary but substantial loss or impairment of any body organ or part or a fracture of any body part.
Serious Physical Injury Cases
The term “serious physical injury” is defined by statute. The provides that it includes “physical injury that creates a reasonable risk of death, or that causes serious and permanent disfigurement, serious impairment of health or loss or protracted impairment of the function of any bodily organ or limb. See A.R.S. § 13-105(39)
A prosthesis is not a “body organ or part” within the meaning of the aggravated assault statute. State v. Martinez, 220 Ariz. 56, 202 P.3d 521 (App. 2008).
To constitute “protracted impairment” of a limb to support a finding of serious physical injury the impairment must be more protracted than either a temporary but substantial impairment of the use of a limb or the healing time of a normal fracture. State v. George, 206 Ariz. 436, 79 P.3d 1050 (App. 2003), review denied.
While “health” in phrase “serious impairment of health”, § 13-105, might be defined to include mental or emotional health, when read in conjunction with provision of § 13-105 stating that physical injury means the impairment of physical condition, it was clear that legislature intended to limit aggravated assault statute, this section, to impairments of physical health. See State v. Garcia, 138 Ariz. 211, 673 P.2d 955 (App. 1983).
A broken nose is “fracture of any body part” within the meaning of Arizona’s aggravated assault statute. See State v. Tiscareno, 190 Ariz. 542, 950 P.2d 1163 (App. 1997).
Visible three-inch laceration on victim’s hand was “disfiguring,” within the meaning of Arizona aggravated assault statute, regardless of whether laceration was temporary and would heal. See State v. Pena (2014).
Superseding Cause Cases in Aggravated Assaults
An automobile accident victim’s failure to wear seat-belt was not “intervening, superseding cause” of the serious injuries that he sustained, and did not preclude prosecution of the other driver for aggravated assault for recklessly causing “serious injury” to the victim. Also, the other motorist should reasonably have foreseen that some of the potential victims of his drunken driving would not be wearing seat belts. See State v. Freeland, 176 Ariz. 544, 863 P.2d 263 (App. 1993), review denied.
Lesser Included Offenses of Arizona Aggravated Assault
Where Endangerment, unlike aggravated assault, requires that victim actually be placed in a substantial risk of imminent death or physical injury, endangerment is not a lesser included offense of aggravated assault, and thus the defendant was not entitled to an instruction on this offense in aggravated assault prosecution. See State v. Rineer, 131 Ariz. 147, 639 P.2d 337 (App. 1981).