On any given day in any given city in the US, chances are that two people will engage in a verbal disagreement that ends up in a fistfight. But can you fight someone if you both agree? It depends where you are, but in California, fist fights are technically against the law, whether or not all parties consent. The good news is that when combat is mutual, you are much less likely to face criminal charges.
What is Mutual Combat?
Mutual combat occurs when two people willingly agree to fight one another in a fair fight, meaning neither individual uses weapons and stops hitting when the other party disengages.
Where is Mutual Combat Legal?
There are currently only two states in the US that permit consenting adults to fight without risk of prosecution —Washington and Texas.
Interestingly, there is only one state that specifically outlaws mutual combat, whereas the rest have no laws covering these types of fights way or the other. Oregon state law specifies that all parties will face disorderly conduct charges after a brawl, regardless of whether or not they all agreed to the physical conflict.
Are Street Fights Illegal in California When Both Parties Agree?
Technically no, because any fight is considered battery, meaning those involved used force or violence against another party. If two people engage in battery against each other, they still have technically broken the law. However, if both people tell the police they consented to the combat, they generally will not be arrested or charged with a crime.
When Can Claiming You Were in Mutual Combat be Beneficial?
You can claim you and the other party agreed to fight to avoid battery charges in most cases. The agreement does not need to be written in a contract or even explicitly stated as long as it is implied that both people were willing to engage in physical violence against one another. As long as one person didn’t suffer dramatically worse injuries than the other and both people agree the fight was mutual, police are unlikely to place the participants under arrest, and prosecutors are unlikely to file charges.
Fighting is Still Illegal
Mutual combat is technically against the law, and prosecutors could still file charges against both parties. Since both people would then likely invoke their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination at the recommendation of their lawyer, it would be very difficult to secure a conviction against either person, which is why prosecutors don’t generally bother filing charges in these cases.
Of course, if you tell police the fight was consensual, you’re placing a lot of faith in the fact that the other person (who you just got in a fistfight with) will agree with you. If they disagree, then you will have just given police information that could be used against you if the prosecutor does file charges.
Regardless of whether the engagement was mutual, when one person is severely injured and the other isn’t, police often arrest the less injured party —and it is likely charges will be filed as well. These charges are often based on the fact that serious injuries typically only occur when someone continued to fight after the other person disengaged or when someone experienced with martial arts choose to use them against someone with minimal physical combat experience.
Throwing the First (or Last) Punch
If you and another person were arguing verbally, but you were the initial aggressor when it came to throwing a punch, you may believe the fighting was mutual. However, the other person may think they were acting in self-defense. In these cases, as the initial aggressor, you are likely to be charged with battery or aggravated assault. If you told the police you threw the first punch thinking the combat was agreed upon, this could be enough to secure a conviction.
For this reason, many people are hesitant to be the initial aggressor in combat since it puts a much heavier legal burden on their ability to fight the charges. In contrast, the person punched at first can claim they acted in self-defense, even if the fight was mostly consensual.
Similarly, if you took things too far and continued to fight after the other person stopped fighting or you used deadly force, then you should contact a lawyer, even if witnesses agree the fight was mutual. If you used deadly force or caused the other person serious injuries, prosecutors are likely to believe you used excessive force regardless of what the other party and the witnesses say,
Mutual Combat and Self Defense
By claiming the combat was initially mutual, you are sacrificing your ability to claim that you acted in self-defense in most cases. However, if you clearly tried to stop fighting and the other party kept going, you can successfully argue that you used self-defense to protect yourself against further attacks.
Similarly, if the other party suddenly took out a knife or gun or threatened to use deadly force, you can claim you used deadly force in response in an attempt to defend yourself. A self-defense strategy can be particularly strong in cases where a fight left someone dead or hospitalized.
Fighting in Public is Disorderly Conduct
Whether or not battery charges are filed, you can also face disorderly conduct (aka disturbing the peace) charges if the fight took place in public. Under this law, fighting or challenging someone to fight in a public place is illegal. Disturbing the peace can be charged as an infraction, punishable by a fine, or as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $400 fine.
Again though, someone acting in self-defense is immune from these charges, which is another why it pays to avoid being the initial aggressor in a fight.
Whatever the specific circumstances of a street brawl, remember that whatever you say may be used against you later. Always talk to an attorney before you speak to the police. Please call (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free consultation with Peter M. Liss.