What is assault?

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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: Jun 29, 2022

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Under the U.S. common law system, the crime of assault is committed when a person intentionally puts another in fear of receiving serious bodily injury or offensive contact. When the victim is actually injured or contacted in an offensive manner, the offender is guilty of battery. Today, while some states continue to separate the two crimes of assault and battery, many have combined both under one single assault statute.

What are the subcategories of assault?

New Jersey law, like that of many other states, subdivides the crime of assault into two different categories: simple and aggravated assaults. A person is guilty of simple assault if they attempt to cause or knowingly or recklessly causes bodily injury to another. They are also guilty of simple assault if they put that person in fear of receiving serious bodily injury.

People can be guilty of aggravated assault if they attempt to cause – or knowingly or recklessly cause – serious bodily injury to another under circumstances demonstrating extreme indifference to the value of human life. Furthermore, a simple assault is upgraded to an aggravated assault if committed against a member of a protected class of individuals, such as a police officer, firefighter, teacher, or judge acting in the line of duty or scope of employment. In New Jersey, sexual assault is categorized as aggravated assault.

Aggravated assaults are considered to be a felony offense and may include an assault committed with a deadly weapon or with the intent to commit a serious crime, such as rape. An assault with a deadly weapon requires that the offender has used a deadly weapon in the commission of the crime. In the absence of aggravating factors, the crime is regarded as simple assault or a misdemeanor.

An object can be a deadly weapon if it can cause death or great bodily harm. Assault doesn’t necessarily require direct physical contact between two people. A gun and a large knife are examples of deadly weapons as they are designed to cause injury. Other objects, such as rocks, or bricks can become a deadly assault weapon if the object is used in a manner likely to threaten serious bodily harm or death.

Aggravated assault charges vary based on the state. So if you’re facing any kind of charges, it’s best to talk to an attorney and check state laws. If it becomes a federal crime, there is a different set of rules and guidelines.

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What is the definition of bodily injury?

Under many state laws, bodily injury is defined as impairment, physical injury, or substantial pain. For example, one punch from an offender to a victim could cause the bodily injury necessary to charge simple assault. Multiple hard punches from that offender could cause the serious physical injury necessary to charge aggravated assault. “Serious bodily injury” is defined as that which creates a substantial risk of death or which causes serious, permanent disfigurement, or the protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ.

An individual who commits an assault needs only a general intent. So, if an individual acts in a way that’s foreseeably dangerous to other people, it can be enough to support the definition of assault, even if they didn’t mean any harm with intent to an individual. Moreover, a criminal assault with intent to scare or threaten people can be enough to establish assault charges.

Under many state laws, aggravated assault is most often graded as a felony while simple assault is graded as a misdemeanor.

Does Assault Always Lead to a Criminal Record?

Like many other crimes, the type of assault isn’t the only factor. If peace officers are involved as victims, the charges can be more severe. If domestic violence is involved, the courts might use a reasonable person standard. Would a reasonable person have defended themselves in the same way given the threat to them?

The punishment could vary widely from a complete dismissal of any charges to months or years in prison. Age also plays a role with minors being sentenced on a different standard than their adult counterparts. 

Do You Need a Criminal Defense Lawyer after an Assault?

No matter where you are when involved in an assault case, always take advantage of legal assistance where possible. In the United States, a lawyer can advise you on your options, create reasonable doubt, and plead down your sentence or help you avoid a criminal record. It depends on what your case looks like. They’re familiar with factors like involuntary intoxication and imminent harm.

In other countries like South Africa, a criminal lawyer faces a different standard as do their clients. Especially if you are visiting from somewhere else, you need a knowledgeable guide. It could be the difference between a serious prison sentence and community service in some cases.

For questions about assault or a local statute on assault, consult an experienced criminal defense attorney before you talk to a law enforcement officer. 

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