In some states, attempting harmful contact with another person (like throwing a punch but missing) is called assault, while actually making harmful contact (landing the punch) is called battery. In Pennsylvania, both types of conduct are called assault.
Pennsylvania has two categories of assault: simple assault and aggravated assault. For the most part, the difference between them is that simple assault involves bodily injury while aggravated assault involves serious bodily injury. But in some circumstances, even assaults that don't involve serious bodily injury can be felonies (more on that later).
In general, a simple assault occurs when someone:
Pennsylvania has another type of simple assault involving hypodermic needles. It's a simple assault to conceal or attempt to conceal a hypodermic needle to poke a police officer or employee of a jail, prison, mental hospital, or other detention facility during an arrest or search.
A "bodily injury" is any physical impairment, which can include physical pain. For example, bruises, scratches, and swelling are bodily injuries.
A certain mindset is required for assault because the law doesn't aim to punish people for true accidents. That said, when someone does a potentially dangerous physical act on purpose, it's often pretty easy to prove that they committed an assault either intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly.
Intentionally. People act intentionally when they mean to do something. For example, throwing a punch during an argument is intentional. It would be an assault in Pennsylvania because a deliberate punch is usually intended to cause injury.
Knowingly. Acting knowingly is very similar to acting intentionally, but it can be less deliberate. For example, imagine that Joan and Bette are arguing and Bette gets so angry that she shoves Joan, causing Joan to lose her balance and fall down the stairs. If charged, Bette might argue that although she intended to push Joan, she didn't mean to push her down the stairs. But Bette could have a hard time convincing a jury that she didn't do it knowingly. Bette knew where Joan was when she shoved her, so she probably knowingly pushed Joan down the stairs.
Recklessly. Often, the easiest mindset for the prosecution to prove is recklessness. Under Pennsylvania law, people act recklessly when they're aware of and consciously disregard a substantial and unjustifiable risk that their conduct poses to others. Conduct is reckless when it's "a gross deviation from" (significantly different than) how the average person would act. In the above example, Bette likely acted recklessly: the average person would understand that pushing someone backward at the top of the stairs could cause them to fall, leading to the natural inference that Bette consciously disregarded that risk when she pushed Joan.
A deadly weapon is any weapon that could be used to cause death or serious injury, such as a gun or a knife. It can also be something not typically thought of as a weapon, such as a beer bottle or golf club if it's used in a manner that could cause death or serious injury.
When someone assaults with a deadly weapon, they don't necessarily have to mean it. Even if their conduct is just negligent, they can be guilty. Someone acts negligently when they should be aware of the risks of their conduct, even if they aren't actually aware. The test is whether a reasonable person in the same circumstances would have been aware of the risk. For example, shooting a gun into the air during a celebration would probably be negligent assault if a bullet grazed someone on the way down. Even if the person had no idea that bullets could injure on their way down, the average person would probably be aware of that risk.
Aggravated assault includes intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly inflicting (or attempting to inflict) serious bodily injury under circumstances that demonstrate an "extreme indifference to the value of human life." Someone demonstrates extreme indifference to human life when injury or death will almost certainly result from their conduct.
Aggravated assault also includes intentionally or knowingly:
Serious bodily injury is an injury that:
Pennsylvania elevates assaults against certain public officials and employees from simple assaults to aggravated assaults, in the following situations.
Public officials and employees who are protected under Pennsylvania's aggravated assault law include:
In general, simple assault is a second degree misdemeanor, which carries the possibility of imprisonment for up to two years and a fine of up to $5,000. But if the assault happens during a fight entered into by mutual consent, it's a third degree misdemeanor, which carries up to one year behind bars and a fine of up to $2,500.
Certain simple assaults are more serious. For example, simple assault against a child under the age of 12 by an adult who is 21 or older is a first degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to five years imprisonment and a fine of up to $10,000.
Aggravated assaults are felonies. An aggravated assault that does not involve serious bodily injury (against an officer, for example) is a second degree felony, punishable by up to ten years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000.
If the person causes serious bodily injury or attempts to cause serious bodily injury, the aggravated assault is a first degree felony, punishable by a term of imprisonment of up to 20 years and a fine of up to $25,000.
In any case, some general defenses might apply, depending on the circumstances. Self-defense and accident (no intent) are common defenses in assault cases.
An assault conviction could result in time behind bars and a heft fine. If you're charged with assault or any other crime, or you've received a restraining order, you should contact a Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney. An experienced attorney should be able to tell you how your case is likely to fare in court based on the facts of your case, and can help you mount the strongest possible defense. They should also have a good idea of whether dismissal, diversion, probation, or a plea deal is possible.
(18 Pa. Con. Stat. §§ 302, 1101, 1103, 1104, 2301, 2701, 2702 (2023).)