In Western Australia, the offence of assault entails various forms of unwanted physical contact with another person, whether through striking, touching, or any other means without their consent, as per the Criminal Code. If found guilty, Common Assault can lead to a prison sentence of up to 18 months and a fine of $18,000, while the more severe form of assault, assault occasioning bodily harm, may result in imprisonment for up to five years.
Aggravating circumstances such as where the offender is in a domestic relationship with the victim, where a child was present, where the conduct breaches the terms of a restraining order, where the victim is aged 60 or older, or where the offence is racially motivated may increase the severity of the punishment.
However, what may come as a surprise to many is that the punishment for assaulting a 'public officer' is far more severe than that of assaulting an ordinary citizen. The Western Australian Parliament considers this crime to be especially problematic, and those convicted of assaulting officers are subject to harsh penalties.
Who is a ‘Public Officer’?
Defining who falls under the category of a 'public officer' is crucial in understanding the severity of assaulting such an individual. The Criminal Code has an extensive list of who is defined as a public officer, with the most important being police officers, private sector health workers, court security officers, prison officers and volunteer State emergency service workers.
How is assault against a Public Officer more serious?
As mentioned previously, the assault of a public officer constitutes heavier punishments, in particular an assault on a public officer is defined as a ‘serious assault’ contained in section 318 of the Criminal Code. Unlike assault, the offence of serious assault may only be heard in the Magistrates Court if the offender is not:
1. armed with any dangerous or offensive weapon or instrument; or
2. in company with another person or persons.
When heard in the Magistrates Court, the court can impose punishments of imprisonment for 3 years and a fine of $36 000.
If these criteria are met or the parties do not agree for the matter to be heard summarily the matter will be dealt with on indictment and may be held in the District Court. If an offender is armed with a dangerous or offensive weapon during the commission of the offense or is in the company of one or more persons, the court can impose a maximum term of imprisonment for a period of up to ten years. If neither of these conditions is met, the court can impose a maximum term of imprisonment for a period of up to seven years. Furthermore, minimum sentencing provisions will take effect when an offender causes a public officer to sustain bodily injuries of such a nature as to endanger, or be likely to endanger life, or to cause, or be likely to cause permanent injury to their health. In circumstances such as these the court is obliged to impose a mandatory term of imprisonment no less than twelve months.
Does spitting constitute assault?
A subject which has drawn criticism amongst Western Australian society and in particular the WA Police Union is the classification of ‘spitting’ within the Criminal Code. The WA Police Union has identified that in the year 2021, 25.2% of WA police officers assaulted suffered a foreign body injury, nearly all being saliva. Of those injuries, 55.1% were directed at the faces or heads of officers.
Spitting does not trigger the mandatory sentencing provisions found within the Criminal Code. This is due to spitting failing to satisfy the test of causing bodily harm. With the prevalence of spitting being committed against police officers and the comparatively lenient sentencing for those who spit at police officers, the WA Police Union is advocating for an amendment of the Criminal Code to harshen penalties against offenders who spit against police officers.
Harsher sentencing for spitting may be justified due to the potential harms it may cause the victim. In Canberra, police officers who are spat on in the mouth, eyes or any lacerations are forced to undergo blood checks for saliva-borne diseases. Spitting may cause health implications which should fulfil the test of causing bodily harm, additionally police officers should not be subjected to frequent blood testing due to such high occurrences of spitting.
Police officers and other public officers perform important functions in society and are responsible for upholding the rule of law. They are often exposed to risks and dangers in carrying out their duties, including physical harm, threats, and intimidation. Therefore, it is in the interests of society as a whole that the Criminal Code protects public officers in order to help ensure that they are able to carry out their duties effectively and without fear of retaliation, which is essential for maintaining the integrity of the justice system and promoting public trust in government institutions.