Assault Penalties, Punishments, and Sentences

Assault is usually associated with physical violence, but assault charges can actually encompass much more than fights or physical attacks. How assault is defined by state law will determine the severity of assault penalties, punishments, and sentences. Minor assault charges will be punished as misdemeanor offenses, but aggravated assault penalties can include extensive prison time, up to life in some states.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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Assault penalties vary depending on the circumstances and the state, but sentence ranges and punishments for assault are usually serious because assault is considered a violent crime. Even minor assaults are treated more harshly because there is a concern that the level of violence will escalate when a second event arises. Some states will also refer to an assault as “battery” or “assault and battery.” A defendant charged with assault should know the different types of assaults, the defenses available in their state, and the punishment ranges for the different types of assault offenses.

Assault Charges

Assault is usually associated with physical violence, however, assault charges can actually encompass much more than fights or physical attacks. Some states generically define assault as any unwanted touching that a defendant knew the other person would find offensive or provocative. Instead of a separate “threat” statute, some states will include threats to harm another in their assault statutes. Under either application, this means that a victim never has to experience pain or an injury before a defendant is charged with assault. However, an assault with a lower level of injury, pain or fear to the victim will usually result in lower level assault charges and thus less severe penalties.

A more extensive injury or fear factor will increase the level of the assault. For example, if a defendant walks by a neighbor’s house and is mumbling to himself about killing them when he has the chance, this would be considered a lower level or misdemeanor type offense because it is merely a threat with less anxiety. Conversely, if the defendant was yelling directly at the neighbor that he was going to kill them and was pointing a gun in their direction, then this incident could be charged as a higher level felony because the threat and fear were much more direct and intense.

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Some defenses to assault are set out in common law, while most states rely on statutory defenses, which are defenses set out in a statute or law. The first generally accepted defense is self-defense. To use self-defense as a defense, the defendant essentially admits that they assaulted another person, but argues that there was a valid legal reason for doing so. A second general defense is consent or mutual combat. The basic argument in a consent defense is that both parties entered the event and understood the risks before they entered into the altercation. For example, if a “victim” challenges a defendant to a fight, but the defendant wins the fight, the defendant could have a defense because he did not provoke the altercation and the victim willingly entered.

Punishment Ranges for Assault

Some trial strategies in assault cases are not defenses per se, but rather they are ways to mitigate any aggravating circumstances that could increase a range of punishment. Basic assault or battery charges that involve minimal injuries or threats are usually punished as misdemeanor offenses. The punishment range for a misdemeanor offense is probation of up to a year or more in a parish or county jail.

If the prosecution alleges and proves certain aggravating circumstances, then an assault or battery charge can be punished as a felony. The punishment range can include extensive prison time, including up to life in prison in some states.

Parole rules also tend to be more severe for defendants convicted of assaults with aggravating circumstances. This means that they serve more of their sentence than another defendant sentenced to the same amount of time for a non-aggravated offense.

What qualifies as an aggravating circumstance will depend on each state’s penal code. However, some general aggravating categories include: (a) the use of a deadly weapon, (b) the infliction of serious or permanent bodily injuries, (c) the assault was racially motivated, (d) prior convictions for assaults involving family violence, and (e) the age of the victim (child or senior citizen) at the time of the assault. If a defendant knows they are guilty of an assault, a better option may be to focus on refuting the aggravating circumstance in order to get a reduced sentence, rather than trying to disprove that the assault occurred at all.

Long Term Consequences of a Conviction

When many people face an assault charge, they are naturally focused on the immediate consequence of how long a probation or jail sentence will be. However, an assault charge can have a dramatic impact on a defendant’s future. If a defendant is in the process of applying for citizenship, an assault conviction can be a basis for denial of citizenship. Some schools and employers will not accept persons with assault convictions on their records. Additionally, some occupations exclude individuals with assault convictions. Even a misdemeanor assault conviction can have long-term consequences. Before making a final decision about whether you should or should not accept a plea bargain, a defendant should consider their future plans and contact a criminal attorney.

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