Most states consider assault with a deadly weapon to be a crime of violence. Because the presence of a deadly weapon substantially increases the risk of harm to another, states impose stiff penalties for these crimes.
An assault with a deadly weapon occurs when an attacker accompanies a physical attack or attempted attack with a physical object capable of inflicting serious bodily injury or death by virtue of its design or construction. (Judges and lawyers often refer to the crime as "ADW.")
"Deadly weapon" generally refers to a wide range of objects that can inflict mortal or great bodily harm—for example, a car or a golf club. Some states consider knives and guns as "deadly weapons per se," which means that the prosecutor need not present evidence of their ability to cause mortal or serious injury. And some instruments, such as pocketknives, shoes, hammers, canes, and bats, while not deadly by design, can become "deadly weapons" depending on how the defendant has used them. Even parts of the human body can be deadly weapons, such as feet, knees, arms, and teeth.
Because the use of a deadly object creates a risk of death or serious harm, most, if not all, states classify assault with a deadly weapon as a felony. Defendants face the possibility of state prison for felonies.
Penalties for assault with a deadly weapon vary by state and the circumstances of the assault. Stiffer penalties generally apply if:
For example, a person convicted of assault with a deadly weapon resulting in no bodily harm might face a few years in prison. If the crime results in harm or targets a vulnerable victim, the maximum penalties could increase to 5 or 10 years in prison, and if both occur, the penalties will increase even more so.
Generally, the most severe penalties apply when the offender uses or brandishes a firearm, especially if that firearm is an automatic weapon or machine gun. States sometimes place these assaults in the category of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. These penalties could range upwards of 15, 20, or more years in prison.
In many states, judges have a wide degree of discretion when it comes to imposing sentences. Factors such as the actual injury to the victim (or lack thereof), the relative ages of the victim and defendant, whether the defendant has a prior criminal record, and the strength of the prosecution's evidence will all affect the ultimate sentence. If the defendant used a firearm in the commission of the crime, the law might impose sentencing enhancements or mandatory minimum sentences.
Self-defense and defense of others are also common defenses in assault cases. To use these defenses, the defendant must present evidence that the alleged victim was the original aggressor and the defendant responded with reasonable force to protect themself or others from harm.
Another possible defense is that the defendant's actions were purely accidental and not intentional or reckless. This defense strategy challenges the strength of the prosecutor's case.
If you're facing charges of assault with a deadly weapon, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney. A lawyer will protect your rights and know how to make the most of any evidence that supports a lesser sentence. Defendants should typically look for a local attorney familiar not only with the offense and any possible defenses but also with how judges and prosecutors in the area treat such cases.
Check out the links below to learn about selected states' laws and penalties associated with assault with a deadly weapon.