What is assault according to the law?

Assault definitions vary depending on jurisdiction, but the consensus is that it is the intent to cause a person to feel as though they are in danger of physical harm. The penalties for assault can be severe, with possible prison sentences of up to 20 years. Getting an experienced lawyer is key if you want to have a chance of appealing the charges or avoiding conviction in the first place.

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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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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Mar 9, 2022

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  • The definition of assault is the intent to put a person in reasonable fear of physical harm
  • There are two different classifications of assault, simple and aggravated 
  • Simple assault and aggravated assault carry distinct penatlies of varying degrees

According to Chapter 27 of Title 18 of the United States Department of Justice’s Code, assault is defined as an attempted usage of force or violence to do corporal injury to another. In other words, assault is considered as intentionally putting another individual at risk of imminently harmful or offensive contact. You’ll find that the exact definition of assault varies depending on what jurisdiction the act falls under.

What are the different classifications of assault?

In the U.S., assault is considered to be the most common violent crime committed. In fact, the FBI reported in 2019 that out of 1,203,808 violent crimes, aggravated assault accounted for a whopping 68.2% reported to law enforcement.

That’s 821,182 individual documented incidences of aggravated assault. But what many people don’t know is that there are two different subcategories of assault that can mean the difference between a hefty fine and some serious jail time.

The first, is simple assault, the most common type of assault, which happens when one threatens to cause harm to another. This is without actually touching, striking, or injuring the other person. It can mean that the person the act was committed against felt as though they were in danger of physical harm. Simple assault is often considered a misdemeanor.

Simple assault can be upgraded to aggravated assault if there is actual intent to cause bodily harm to another person or if the perpetrator uses a deadly weapon while threatening to cause harm. Deadly weapons are typically guns or knives but can be anything used to inflict damage. Unlike simple assault, aggravated assault is a felony and comes with higher consequences.

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What are some examples of assault?

Here are some prime examples of simple assault:

  • attempting to cause serious harm to another person, such as trying to strike them and missing
  • causing an individual to feel threatened or fear that they could be
  • verbally threatening to cause harm to a person

Now, these are examples of aggravated assault:

  • assault that results in serious physical injury to a person
  • threatening to kill a person while pointing a gun at them or shooting a person with a gun
  • assault committed against a on-duty police officer, firefighter, or EMT.
  • striking or threatening to strike someone with a deadly weapon

What does assault and battery mean?

If you’ve seen any crime show ever, you’ve heard the term “assault and battery.” So, we know what assault is, but what is battery? While assault is the intent to cause harm, battery is the act of doing so. Even though assault and battery are separate offenses, they are often grouped together.

Assault can happen without battery, and battery can happen without assault. Consider a situation where someone threatens to throw a rock at one person, throws the rock, but hits a second person who had no awareness of the situation. In this circumstance, the assault was to the first person and the second person suffered a battery but no assault.

Is assault a felony?

Much like how there are separate classifications of assault, there are also degrees, as well. These degrees define how serious the crime is. In the legal system, assault is divided up from first-degree, second-degree, and third-degree, with first-degree being the most severe and third-degree being the least.

Simple assault tends to fall under the scope of a misdemeanor in the eyes of the U.S. court system. A misdemeanor is defined as a minor wrongdoing. And it is less serious than a felony. Depending on the specifics, this type of assault could be deemed as a third to first-degree misdemeanor.

Once you get into aggravated assault, things begin to become more consequential. These are classified as felonies and the court of law does not take these charges lightly. A felony often results in a prison sentence if the court finds the defendant guilty.

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What are the punishments for assault?

The penalties for assault vary depending on whether it’s a misdemeanor or a felony, the degree of the charge, and what jurisdiction it falls under. For example, in the state of Pennsylvania, simple assaults are usually charged as a second-degree misdemeanor. These charges carry a fine of up to $5,000 and one to two years of jail time. A third-degree misdemeanor charge results in up to a $2,500 fine and one year in jail. Lastly, first-degree misdemeanors could mean up to five years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

Aggravated assault penalties are much harsher. A second-degree felony assault conviction means five to 10 years in jail and a fine of up to $25,000. But a first-degree felony assault charge could result in 10 to 20 years in jail and a minimum $25,000 fine.

What are the defenses for assault charges?

When it comes to assault cases in the United States legal system, there are defenses that can get the defendant cleared of charges. Firstly, you’ll need a good lawyer to plead your case. One of the most common defenses for any assault case is self-defense. In order to be considered self-defense, the defendant must prove that there was a threat of unlawful harm or force against them.

Similarly, defense of others or defense of property may be viable as long as only reasonable force is used.

Other defenses that the court will accept as grounds for appeal in assault charges are consent, necessity, duress, or lack of mental state. Consent means that the assault took place during a voluntary act, such as contact sports like football. Necessity would be if the defendant participated in the assault because they had no other choice and acting otherwise would have resulted in greater public or private injury. Duress is similar to necessity but is when the act was committed because any other action would have meant physical harm to themselves. Lastly, lack of mental state means that the defendant was not in the correct mental state or did not act knowingly.

For the best chance of fighting an assault charge, it’s important to contact a knowledgeable lawyer with experience in these types of cases.

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