Aggravated Assault Laws and Penalties

Learn how states define and penalize aggravated assault crimes.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated July 18, 2022

Aggravated assault is a crime of violence. While states define and penalize aggravated assault differently, most punish these crimes based on the level of harm threatened or inflicted, whether a weapon was involved, and who the victim was. Some states refer to aggravated assault as felony assault, first-degree assault, or another classification.

This article will discuss common definitions and penalties for aggravated assault.

What Is Aggravated Assault?

Aggravated assault generally involves intentionally using or threatening to use force or violence against another and:

  • the assault results in serious or great bodily injury
  • the attacker had or used a deadly weapon, or
  • the victim belonged to a protected class.

Most states divide assault cases into degrees, such as first through third degrees, simple and aggravated assault, or misdemeanor and felony assault.

Aggravated Assault Resulting in Serious or Great Bodily Harm or Injuries

Your state might use levels of harm to distinguish simple from aggravated assault or misdemeanor from felony assault. Simple assault charges might apply if a person threatens or causes bodily harm or moderate bodily harm, whether visible or not (such as bruising, pain, or a cut lip). Aggravated penalties typically apply when the crime results in serious, substantial, or great bodily harm or risk of death. To rise to the level of aggravated assault, most often the harm must be permanent, life-threatening, or substantial enough to cause long-lasting pain or require numerous stitches, a cast, or surgery. Any injury that results in permanent scars, a limp, or loss of a bodily function will also generally meet this level of harm.

Aggravated Assault Involving a Deadly Weapon

Depending on the state law, an assailant may face aggravated assault charges if they possessed a weapon and either threatened to use it or used it in the offense. A state might even divide these crimes into assault with a deadly weapon and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

An object is a deadly weapon if it likely can cause death or great bodily harm. A gun and a large knife are, by definition, deadly weapons because they are inherently dangerous and even designed to cause injury. Other objects, such as rocks, bricks, or even a boot, can constitute a deadly weapon if the object is used in a manner likely to cause or threaten serious bodily injury or death.

Aggravated Assault Involving a Protected Victim

Many states bump up a simple assault to felony or aggravated assault if the victim is a member of a protected class. Generally, these protected victims include those who work in dangerous or sensitive positions, such as first responders, judicial officers, and jail and prison workers. Some states also include vulnerable victims, like elderly adults, or victims targeted based on hate or bias.

What Are Examples of Aggravated Assault?

Every state has different laws and different interpretations of those laws. Below are examples of aggravated assault crimes, but be sure to talk to a lawyer about the laws that apply in your state.

  • Striking or threatening to strike a person with a knife, bat, or metal bar.
  • Shooting a person with a gun or threatening to kill someone while pointing a gun at the victim.
  • Assaulting another with the intent to commit another felony crime, such as robbery or rape.
  • Throwing a vase at someone or pushing another into a glass object and causing serious lacerations.
  • Pushing someone down the stairs and causing them to break a bone.
  • Threatening violence against someone while concealing one's identity.
  • Assaulting a police officer, healthcare provider, social services worker, or developmentally disabled or elderly person.

    To learn about aggravated assault laws in your state, jump ahead to the section on state aggravated assault laws.

    How Does the Prosecutor Prove Aggravated Assault?

    In order to convict on aggravated assault, the prosecutor must prove every aspect of the crime (called the "elements" of the crime) beyond a reasonable doubt, including the act of assault and the elements that made the assault "aggravated." Failure to prove the assault or the "aggravating" elements could lead to dismissal of the charges or a reduction from aggravated to simple assault.

    The prosecutor must prove that the defendant intentionally threatened an attack and caused the victim fear, or that the defendant attempted or accomplished a physical attack. (The crime doesn't require proof that the defendant intended to cause the exact injuries, just the act that caused them.) The prosecutor also must prove the facts that make the assault aggravated—that the defendant used a deadly weapon, inflicted serious injuries, committed the assault in furtherance of another serious crime, or targeted a protected class of victim.

    What Are the Penalties for Aggravated Assault? Is Aggravated Assault a Felony?

    Aggravated assault is a felony punishable by approximately 5 to 30 years in prison, depending on the specific provisions of each state's sentencing laws and the circumstances of the crime. Typically, the greater the harm or threatened harm is, the greater the penalty will be.

    Will Aggravated Assault Result in Jail or Prison Time?

    In determining a sentence, judges usually consider the defenses presented at trial, whether the defendant has taken responsibility for the crime and shows remorse, circumstances surrounding the crime, the extent of any injuries incurred, the type of weapon used, the accused's prior criminal record and, in some situations, the victim's background or relationship to the defendant. As an example, a first-time offender who hits someone in a bar fight and breaks their nose will receive a more lenient sentence than a repeat offender who attacks a police officer while resisting arrest.

    Normally, the judge has discretion on the length of the sentence and whether to allow the defendant to serve any portion of the sentence on probation rather than in prison. But that said, because aggravated assault is a crime of violence, most convicted defendants will spend some time in jail or prison—the exact amount of time will depend on the factors noted above.

    Mandatory or Enhanced Penalties in Aggravated Assault Cases

    In some states, a convicted defendant might receive a mandatory minimum sentence that the judge must impose if the circumstances involve several aggravating factors. For instance, say the crime involved great bodily harm (a gunshot wound) to a protected victim (a police officer). The law might direct a judge to hand down a minimum sentence of 20 years in prison with no option of probation or parole.

    In many states, the law provides more severe penalties, mandatory penalties, or sentencing enhancements if the deadly weapon used was a firearm (rather than a knife, bat, or another object). Penalties can be even more severe for certain types of firearms, such as automatic weapons, machine guns, or guns that shoot metal-resistant bullets.

    What Defenses Can Be Raised in an Aggravated Assault Case?

    Defendants charged with aggravated assault have the usual defenses available to all criminal defendants, starting with "You've got the wrong person, it wasn't me."

    In addition, a defendant can claim self-defense or defense of others and present evidence that the alleged victim initiated the confrontation and the defendant was defending himself or another person from the alleged victim's attack. That defense may take the form of showing that a weapon actually was in the victim's possession or that the victim made the first threat or struck the first blow. Another possible defense is showing that the defendant's actions were purely accidental and there was no criminal intent.

    Legal Representation

    Aggravated assault is a very serious felony charge and a conviction can seriously impact your life. You could face a lengthy prison sentence and the stigma of being a convicted felon. Convicted felons cannot vote or possess firearms and often have difficulty finding employment. A competent criminal defense attorney can help you fight an assault charge, protect your rights, and work to achieve the best possible outcome.

    Aggravated Assault Laws by State

    Choose your state from the list below to find information about your state's laws regarding aggravated assault.

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