The crime of Assault with Caustic Chemicals is codified at California Penal Code section 244, which criminalizes the act of throwing or placing harmful liquids or substances at/on someone while intending to harm or maim him/her.
Unsurprisingly, this offense is always charged as a felony that can carry long-term prison sentences (see below). These range from a maximum four-year stretch in a state penitentiary (the high-term without any previous convictions for serious or violent felonies), or up to nine or 14-year terms with certain sentencing enhancements (again, see below). You could even end up with a sentence of 25-to-life if this is your Third Strike (California Penal Code section 667(e)(2)).
Notably, unlike the following assault crimes, this particular offense actually requires that you make offensive or harmful contact with the accuser:
Assault by Means Likely to Produce Great Bodily Injury/Aggravated Assault (California Penal Code section 245(a)(4));
Assault with a Deadly Weapon (ADW) (Penal Code section 245(a)(1));
Assault with a Deadly Weapon (ADW) on a Police Officer (Pen. Code section 245(c));
Assault with Stun Gun or Less Lethal Weapon (California Penal Code section 244.5);
Assault on a Public Official (California Penal Code section 217.1(a));
Assault Under Color of Authority (California Penal Code section 149).
Assault and Battery Crimes – Assault with a Caustic Chemical -- “Strikes”
If you allegedly attacked someone with a dangerous substance or chemical and you severely injure that person, then you will also be charged with a Strike Offense (Penal Code section 667(a)&(b)).
More specifically, a Strike offense involving this type of injury will be classified as a “Violent Felony” under California Penal Code section 667.5(c)(8); or as a “Serious Felony” under California Penal Code section 1192.7(c)(8)).
If this will be your first Strike conviction, then you’ll still have to serve a minimum of eighty percent (80%) of your base-term prison sentence (see below) even if you’re a model prisoner. But if this is your Second Strike, then that base term will be doubled. And we all know what a Third Strike gets you – a quarter-century to life (although parole will be possible once that eighty-percent-minimum is completed).
California Statutes – Assault and Battery Crimes -- Assault with a Caustic Chemical
A conviction for Assault with Caustic Chemicals (Penal Code section 244) requires that the prosecutor prove each of the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt to the jury:
You intentionally and nefariously placed or threw, or caused such placing or throwing, onto the victim with…
A vitriolic/corrosive/incendiary/caustic substance/chemical – regardless of type or composition…
While trying or intending to harm/wound/maim the victim.
Again, this charge will always be prosecuted as a felony.
In addition, you will be stripped of your right to own/possess/purchase/sell/transfer/use guns for a minimum of a decade. Of course, if you’ve previously been convicted of any felony, then you’ve already been permanently stripped of this right.
Assault and Battery Crimes -- Assault with a Caustic Chemical -- Conviction
Assuming the judge orders you to serve prison time (which he almost certainly will, particularly if the victim is at least somewhat injured), then a conviction will result in a base low, mid, or high term sentence of 24, 36, or 48 months.
With good-time credits, you may be eligible for early release/parole after serving one-half to two-thirds of that sentence (depending on a number of factors). That is, of course, unless you caused severe physical harm to the victim as discussed above.
See Assault with Caustic Chemicals (Pen. Code section 244).
Assault and Battery Crimes – Assault with a Caustic Chemical -- Sentencing Enhancements
In addition to a Strike conviction as discussed above – you will receive a five or ten-year sentencing enhancement for a conviction of this crime under any of the following circumstances:
You Inflicted Great Bodily Injury (GBI) on the victim (California Penal Code section 12022.7) (serious injury is defined as “great bodily injury” (same));
You Inflicted Great Bodily Injury (GBI) On A Child Under the Age of Five Years (Penal Code section 12022.7(d));
You committed the crime for the Benefit of a Street Gang (California Penal Code section 186.22);
The assault constituted a Hate Crime (California Penal Code section 422.55); or
You Injured an Elderly Person (California Penal Code section 368(b)(2)).
Defenses to Assault and Battery Criminal Charges -- Assault with a Caustic Chemical
The Judicial Council of California sets forth the following viable defenses in its Criminal Jury Instructions (“CALCRIM”) to a felony charge of Assault with Caustic Chemicals (Pen. Code sec. 244):
You never intended to harm or otherwise attack the purported victim with the subject chemical or substance (e.g., the injury was purely the result of an accident);
You otherwise didn’t intentionally or nefariously throw/toss/douse/spray anything caustic/corrosive/flammable/vitriolic on anyone;
You did intentionally do so, but not with the intent to harm/maim/disfigure the purported victim;
You did intentionally, and perhaps even nefariously, assault him/her with a flammable liquid/substance, but that liquid/substance had an insufficient flashpoint to trigger prosecution hereunder;
You reasonably and actually believed that you or someone else was about to be attacked and seriously injured or even killed by the purported victim, and that’s why you sprayed him/her with the chemical/substance.
See CALCRIM number 877 (“Assault With Caustic Chemicals -- Pen. Code § 244”).
See also CALCRIM number 3470 (“Right to Self-Defense or Defense of Another”);
CALCRIM number 917 (“Insulting Words Are Not a Defense”);
CALCRIM number 3470 (“Right to Self-Defense or Defense of Another -- Non-Homicide”);
CALCRIM number 3471 (“Right to Self-Defense: Mutual Combat or Initial Aggressor”);
CALCRIM number 3472 (“Right to Self-Defense: May Not Be Contrived”); and
CALCRIM number 3474 (“Danger No Longer Exists or Attacker Disabled”).
Examples of Assault and Battery Crimes – Assault with a Caustic Chemical
Four Juvenile Detention Officers Acquitted of Pepper Spraying Charges Against Minors
Without a doubt, one of the most notorious cases in recent years involving allegations of Assault with Caustic Chemicals (P.C. section 244) occurred in Downey – specifically, at a juvenile detention facility for female minors.
During a three-and-a-half month period in mid 2018, four juvenile detention officers -- LaCour Harrison (age fifty-two at the time), Claudette Reynolds (age fifty-six), Maria Guerrero (twenty-seven), and Karnesha Marshall (twenty-six) – were accused of repeatedly pepper-spraying various juvenile inmates for a variety of infractions. In addition, the officers allegedly withheld or delayed medical treatment for the victims as an additional punitive measure.
In 2018, the District Attorney’s Office charged each of the four women with multiple counts of the following offenses:
Felony Assault Under Color of Authority (California Penal Code section 149);
Misdemeanor Child Abuse (California Penal Code section 273d); and
Misdemeanor Child Endangerment (California Penal Code section 273a).
If convicted of all charges, particularly the felonies, the four detention officers could expect to be sentenced to significant prison terms.
Notably, at around the same time the four women were charged, pepper spray was banned in juvenile detention facilities by the Los Angeles Co. Bd. of Supervisors. (Numerous other states previously banned pepper spray in these facilities, but not California.)
The four defendants lucked out, however. On February 4, 2020, a jury acquitted them of all charges. However, several other women – L.A. Co. probation officers -- were then charged with the same crimes. Specifically, Marlene Wilson (forty-seven) and Janeth Vilchez (forty-nine) were also accused of pepper-spraying inmates at the same facility.
On June 13, 2021, after a multi-day preliminary hearing, the two P.O.s were ordered to stand trial for those charges after a superior court judge found there was probable cause that they were guilty.
San Diego Man Receives 6 Years in a California Penitentiary for Injuring a Woman with Acid
It remains unclear how much prison time he served; but in any event, he apparently didn’t mind it too much as 23 years later, in late September 2012, he was arrested for suspicion of throwing sulfuric acid in the face of a woman who was doing her laundry at a local laundromat.
The woman, Lizet Lopez (age unknown), had witnessed Reyes throwing some object at her vehicle, which was parked in front of the business. When she went outside to confront him, Reyes threw the caustic chemical at her, resulting in second-degree burns to her face and upper torso.
Thus, in addition to being prosecuted for Assault with Caustic Chemicals (P.C. section 244), he was also charged with a Special Allegation of Inflicting Great Bodily Injury (GBI) (California Penal Code section 12022.7).
As a result, Reyes was facing the following potential maximum sentence: four years for the base max sentence plus double that (i.e., eight years) because this would be his second Strike Offense (Penal Code section 667(a)&(b); Penal Code section 667.5(c) (“Violent Felonies”); Penal Code section 1192.7(c) (“Serious Felonies”).
Plus, at least another five years (up to a maximum of ten) for the Special Allegation enhancement. Thus, he was looking at a possible 28-year stretch if he went to trial and lost.
Instead, Reyes wisely took a guilty plea without the Strike enhancement, and with a reduced enhancement for the Special Allegation, and was sentenced to half-a-dozen years in late February 2013. In handing down the arguably light sentence, the judge noted that Reyes was apparently suffering from severe mental health problems at the time, and that he otherwise had no rational motive for attacking Lopez.
Oceanside Resident Gets Almost Two Decades in Prison for Dousing His Ex-Wife with Gas
In March 2010, Danny Vinci (forty-three) – a multiple felon with two or three prison stretches already under his belt, and who, at the time, had recently bailed out of jail on a narcotics charge – walked up to his former spouse (Cheryl Kopp, age unknown) as she exited a north San Diego County yoga class, and doused her with gasoline. He then threw a lit lighter at her but fortunately he was unsuccessful. Also fortunately, she was not wounded in the attack.
Less than a month before this incident, his ex claimed that Vinci had physically assaulted and choked her, though it remains unclear if she called police on him at the time.
In any event, San Diego PD arrested Vinci as he fled the scene of his current assault. As a result of the foregoing, he was charged with:
Assault with Caustic Chemicals (P.C. sec. 244);
Making a Criminal Threat (California Penal Code section 422);
Corporal Injury to Spouse, Cohabitant, or Fellow Parent (California Penal Code section 273.5);
Domestic Battery (California Penal Code section 243(e)(1));
Possession of a Controlled Substance (California Health and Safety Code section 11350);
Resisting Arrest (Penal Code section 148).
On or about July 20, 2011, a jury convicted him of 4 felonies that collectively carried a maximum prison sentence of almost 30 years.
On August 16, 2011, Vinci received a mid-term sentence of seventeen years, of which he would have to serve a minimum of eighty percent based on California’s so-called “Three Strikes Law”, which, again, is codified at Pen. Code section 667(a)&(b).
In declining to give Vinci a low-term stretch, the judge noted the fact that the convict had spent almost a decade in prison for previous felony convictions, including for Grand Theft Auto (“GTA”) (California Penal Code section 487(d)(1)).
Van Nuys Resident Admits to Committing Hundreds of Attacks with Acid on Vehicles and People
Over the course of a five-month period in mid 1986, Van Nuys resident Thomas Larsen (age thirty-eight) doused a corrosive liquid on approximately five hundred vehicles on at least thirty different occasions.
Far worse, he did the same to more than half-a-dozen individuals during that same crime spree, including a ten-year-old girl, Teresa Lopez of Canoga Park. The remaining victims also suffered injuries, though all were apparently minor. The assaults/attacks took place in three counties – Los Angeles, Ventura, and Orange Counties.
One month after the last incident, police in Valencia arrested Larsen just as he was about to douse another vehicle with acid.
In addition to being charged with seven felony counts of Assaulting Someone with a Caustic Chemical (P.C. sec. 244), Larsen was also charged with numerous counts of felony Vandalism (California Penal Code section 594). He was also hit with a Special Allegation of Inflicting Great Bodily Injury (GBI) (Penal Code section 12022.7) based on the injuries caused to the young girl.
As it turned out, Larsen was pissed off at the judicial system because he had previously been arrested for – but not prosecuted, since the charge was dropped – on a single felony count of attempted Annoying or Molesting a Child Under 18 (California Penal Code section 647.6).
On January 12, 1987, just before his court trial (i.e., without a jury -- decided by the judge alone) was to commence, Larsen accepted a nolo contendere plea to multiple felonies in consideration for the prosecution dropping all the remaining felony charges and the Special Allegation, and in consideration for an eight-year cap on his prison sentence.
According to the DA’s Office, the only reason they offered him a plea deal was due to the fact that they didn’t believe they could prove that the young girl’s injuries were sufficiently grievous to amount to what is defined as a “serious injury” in Penal Code section 12022.7 (Special Allegation).
Sure enough, Larsen received the maximum sentence of almost nine years behind bars. What remains unclear is what happened to his accomplice. Specifically, all the witnesses, including the young girl, told police and prosecutors that Larsen had squirted them with sulfuric acid while he was leaning out the front passenger window as he was driven in an automobile. Presumably, however, the accomplice was also identified, arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced – and almost certainly because Larsen himself led police to him as part of his cooperation/plea agreement.
The Los Angeles Defense Attorney Law Firm (LADALF)
LADAL’s top attorney Ninaz Saffari has taken more than sixty cases all the way through trial to judgement/jury verdict since she first began practicing criminal law in March 2005. Her most recent trial – which involved charges of First-Degree Murder (California Penal Code section 187(a)), Deliberate and Premeditated Attempted Murder (“First-Degree Attempted Murder”) (California Penal Code section 664), and felony Child Endangerment (California Penal Code section 273a) – concluded in late November 2021. A number of these cases involved a variety of assault crimes, and her extraordinary case results for those types of cases can be reviewed in the “Cases” dropdown menu on this website’s homepage.