Assault With a Deadly Weapon

Assault with a deadly weapon is a felony offense regardless of the actual injuries caused to the victim.

By , Attorney · Santa Clara University School of Law
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated December 12, 2023

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.

What Is Assault With a Deadly Weapon?

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.")

What Is the Definition of a Deadly Weapon?

"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 doesn't need to 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, or a dog or other animal.

Is Assault With a Deadly Weapon a Felony?

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.

What Are the Penalties for Assault With a Deadly Weapon?

Penalties for assault with a deadly weapon vary by state and the circumstances of the assault. Stiffer penalties generally apply if:

  • the weapon is a firearm
  • the victim suffers serious injuries, or
  • the victim falls under a protected class, such as a police officer or vulnerable adult.

Felony Penalties for Assault With a Deadly Weapon

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.

Sentencing for Assault With a Deadly Weapon

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.

Defenses for Assault With a Deadly Weapon

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

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.

Talk to a Lawyer

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.

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