Several plea options and other alternatives to trial are available to a person charged with simple assault. The specific options depend on state laws and the policies of the local court in which the defendant is charged.
Definition of Simple Assault
The crime of simple assault is a misdemeanor except in rare circumstances, but the definition of this crime varies from state to state.
Assault as a threat
In some states, the crime of assault consists of threatening behavior and does not involve any physical touching. Under this definition, a person commits an assault if he threatens another person with immediate bodily harm by behavior or statements, appears to have the ability to carry out the threat, and causes the person to feel fear. An example of this type of assault is an able-bodied man yelling moving closer and closer to another person (perhaps with a drawn fist or a knife within reach) and yelling that he will cut, hit, or otherwise physically injure the person.
Assault as a physical attack or attempted physical attack
In other states, assault consists of an intentional physical attack or offensive touching of another person or an attempted physical contact or offensive touching. This type of assault can involve pushing someone during an argument, striking a person with your fist, spitting on a person, or attempting to do any of those things without making contact.
In a simple assault case, the prosecutor and the defense may enter into a plea agreement. Under a typical plea agreement, the defendant pleads guilty or no contest to one or more charges and the parties agree on a proposed sentence to present to the judge. The judge ultimately determines the appropriate sentence, but usually will follow reasonable agreements between the prosecution and the defense. (If a defendant pleads no contest, he does not admit guilt or dispute the charges. A no contest or “nolo contendre” plea is a statement that the defendant does not contest the charge.)
Sentencing agreements with jail time
In some cases, the defendant may have no choice but to agree to spend some time in jail. Circumstances in which a prosecutor may require an agreement to a jail sentence can include:
- the defendant has a criminal record
- the assault charge involves domestic violence and the state’s laws require a mandatory jail sentence for the charge due to prior convictions for domestic violence, or
- the facts of the case are particularly serious and the defendant was a breath away from being charged with a more serious crime.
Sentencing agreements with no jail time
If the defendant has no criminal record or very little criminal history or there are mitigating circumstances, or both, the prosecutor may agree to the defendant serving his entire sentence on probation with no time in jail, and even agree to the charges being dismissed once the defendant completes probation. This often is referred to as a deferred sentence in which the court does not enter a conviction unless the defendant commits another crime while on probation or otherwise fails to comply with terms of probation.
Another alternative plea option involves the defendant serving the entire sentence on probation, without any jail time, but with no option for the charges to be dismissed. The defendant will have a conviction on his record. This is often referred to as a suspended sentence.
For more information on suspended sentences, see Suspended Imposition of a Jail Sentence.
Some states and local courts have diversion programs, under which the defendant does not plead guilty or no contest and does not go to trial, but agrees to participate in the program and complete all its requirements (possible requirements include counseling, staying off drugs or alcohol, finding employment, and reporting to a probation officer). If the defendant completes the diversion program successfully, the charges are dismissed. These programs often require the defendant to agree to an automatic guilty plea if the defendant fails to complete the program. The defendant may even be required to sign a statement of guilt in advance, which the prosecution can enter against him if he fails to comply with or complete the program requirements.
Plea to a Lesser Charge
Another plea option for a defendant charged with simple assault is a plea to a lesser charge. A prosecutor may agree to dismiss an assault charge if the defendant pleads guilty to a charge such as disorderly conduct or public affray, especially if the incident was a shouting or shoving match or a scuffle between two equally-matched people. (Public affray is a crime involving fighting in public.) An example might be a baroom brawl or an argument between neighbors that got out of hand but was not particularly serious.
A prosecutor is most likely to agree to a plea to a lesser charge if the defendant has a minimal criminal record and the incident did not involve serious violence, family violence, or an attack on a more vulnerable person.
Consult an Attorney
If you are charged with simple assault, you should contact an attorney immediately to discuss your options. A local attorney will be familiar with the prosecution policies in the local courts and with sentencing and diversion programs that might be available to you.