The crimes of assault, assault and battery, and aggravated assault all involve intentional harm inflicted on one person by another. Any crime involving a physical attack (or even the threat of an attack) is usually classified as an assault, a battery, or both. Depending on the seriousness of the attack (or the dangerousness of the weapon used), these acts can rise to the level of aggravated assault. And more than one-sided attacks can constitute assault. Fighting can lead to an assault charge, even when two people have mutually agreed to fight.
Read on to learn how the law defines and penalizes assault, assault and battery, and aggravated assault crimes. (To learn about assault and battery as intentional torts that can form the basis of a civil lawsuit, check out Assault and Battery as Personal Injury Claims.)
Assault is often defined as any intentional act that causes another person to fear an attack or imminent physical harm. This definition recognizes that placing another person in fear of bodily harm is itself an act deserving of punishment, even if the victim of the assault is not physically harmed. This definition also allows police officers to intervene and make an arrest without waiting for the assaulter to actually strike the victim.
Assault example: Snider is walking down a city street carrying a bottle of soda. Mantle, walking along the same street in the opposite direction, sees Snider approaching. Because of Snider's reputation as a hothead, Mantle immediately becomes fearful that Snider will swing the bottle at him when their paths cross. As they walk past each other, nothing happens. Snider has not committed an assault. Snider has a right to carry a bottle of soda in public, and Mantle's fear of being hit was not the result of Snyder's intentionally threatening behavior. But now assume that, as they draw closer, Snider draws back his fist and tells Mantle "You're going to pay for stealing my collection of baseball pennants." As Snider begins to swing his fist in Mantle's direction, Mantle sprints away and escapes harm. Here, Snider has committed an assault. His intentional conduct placed Mantle in reasonable fear of immediate bodily harm.
Historically, battery and assault were considered separate crimes, with battery requiring that the aggressor physically strike or offensively touch the victim. In that way, a battery was a "completed" assault. Many modern statutes don't bother to distinguish between the two crimes, as evidenced by the fact that the phrase "assault and battery" has become as common as "salt and pepper." These days, statutes often refer to crimes of actual physical violence as assaults.
The criminal laws of many states classify assaults as either simple or aggravated, according to the gravity of the harm that occurs—or is likely to occur if the assaulter follows through and strikes the victim.
Simple assault often carries misdemeanor penalties (and some states refer to this crime as a misdemeanor assault.) This crime generally involves either the threat of immediate harm or a physical act that results in minimal injuries. Raising a fist at someone and threatening to smack them would be a simple assault. Shoving or slapping a person that results in bruising may also be charged as simple assault.
Aggravated assault is a felony that may involve an assault resulting in serious bodily harm or an assault committed with a weapon or with the intent to commit a serious crime, such as rape. (Some assault laws name the aggravating factor—for example, "assault with a deadly weapon.") An assault may also be defined as aggravated if it occurs in the course of a relationship that the legal system regards as worthy of special protection (see "Aggravated Assault Example 2" below for more discussion). In the absence of factors such as these, the crime tends to be simple assault, as described above.
Other assault classifications. As an alternative to classifying assaults as either simple or aggravated, some states recognize the different levels of harm that they can cause by classifying them as first- (most serious), second-, or third-degree (less serious) assaults.
Example 1: Alyssa is walking alone late at night when a man suddenly jumps in front of her and drags her into the bushes. The man strikes her a couple times and begins to rip at her clothes. Fortunately, Alyssa strikes the attacker with a rock and runs away to safety. The attacker is guilty of aggravated assault because the circumstances indicate that he assaulted Alyssa with the intent of raping her.
Example 2: A nurse in a nursing home facility fondles an elderly patient. The nurse may be convicted of aggravated assault in states that have enacted special statutes to protect elderly or mentally ill patients against violence by caregivers.
The penalties for assault and battery crimes depend on the amount of harm done or threatened, the victim, and the offender's criminal record.
Simple assault (or assault and battery) generally carries misdemeanor penalties of up to a year in jail and fines around $500 to $2,500. Felony penalties may apply if the offender has prior assault convictions or assaulted a vulnerable victim (such as a child or elderly person) or a protected victim (like an EMT or teacher). Generally, these offenses tend to carry low-level felony penalties, such as two to five years in prison.
Aggravated assault can result in stiff felony penalties of 10-, 15- or even 20-years' prison time, plus fines of $5,000 to $20,000. The punishment often depends on the level of harm threatened or inflicted. For instance, an aggravated assault involving a dangerous weapon or resulting in serious bodily harm (like broken bones) might carry a 10-year sentence. But if the assault threatens or results in great bodily harm or risk of death, the maximum penalty may be a 20-year prison sentence.
A judge might sentence a first-time defendant to probation, which allows the person to serve all or part of their sentence in the community. Probation is less likely for repeat or egregious assaults. Conditions of probation might include attending anger management classes or substance abuse counseling, staying away from the victim, and paying restitution to the victim.
Whether a defendant serves time in the community on probation or behind bars, a judge will likely issue a restraining or protective order against the defendant. This order prohibits the defendant from contacting or seeing the victim (even from behind prison walls). A violation can mean an immediate arrest and an additional conviction.
If a victim suffers physical or emotional injuries resulting from the assault, the judge can order the defendant to pay for these medical and counseling bills. The defendant might also have to pay for any property damage done during the assault. Payments from the defendant to the victim are referred to as restitution.
If you've been arrested or charged with a crime, consult an experienced criminal defense attorney. A knowledgeable lawyer will be able to fully explain the law in your state and advise you of your options. You can use Nolo's trusted Lawyer Directory to find an experienced criminal law attorney near you.