Simple and Aggravated Assault Laws in Pennsylvania

Understand the differences between simple and aggravated assault in Pennsylvania.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated April 16, 2024

In Pennsylvania, a person commits an assault when they inflict (or attempt to inflict) a physical injury on another person. The offense can be a misdemeanor or felony, depending on how serious the assault is.

Understanding Assault Crimes in Pennsylvania

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 aggravated assaults (and felonies).

What Is Simple Assault in Pennsylvania?

In general, a simple assault occurs when someone:

  • attempts to cause, or intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly causes, bodily injury to another
  • negligently causes bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon, or
  • attempts by "physical menace" to put another in fear of imminent serious bodily injury.

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.

Definitions Relating to Assault

Simple assault typically involves acts designed to cause "bodily injuries." Other terms relating to simple assault include "negligent" acts, "deadly weapons," and "physical menace."

Bodily injury. A "bodily injury" is any physical impairment, including physical pain. For example, bruises, scratches, and swelling are bodily injuries.

Negligent acts. Most assaults involve intentional, knowing, or reckless acts—acts done deliberately or in conscious disregard of a substantial risk of harm. Negligent acts aren't usually criminal (they fall under civil tort laws). But, here, Pennsylvania lawmakers decided if a person uses a deadly weapon and causes harm, even negligently, that should count as assault. To prove negligence, the test is whether a reasonable person in the same circumstances would have been aware of the risk.

Deadly weapons include any firearm (loaded or unloaded) or any instrument designed to cause harm (like a knife or brass knuckles) or that can be used to cause death or serious bodily injury (such as a baseball bat, crowbar, or steel-toed boots).

Physical menacing means the defendant used a physical act to create fear, like raising a fist or wielding a knife, instead of threats alone.

Examples of Simple Assault

Examples of simple assault in Pennsylvania could include deliberately punching someone or trying to punch someone and missing. Kicking, slapping, hair pulling, and shoving are other examples of assault that could result in bodily injuries. Recklessly throwing a glass beer bottle in a crowded bar is another 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.

What Is Aggravated Assault in Pennsylvania?

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 causing bodily injury by:

  • assaulting someone with a deadly weapon
  • assaulting a child younger than 6, or
  • assaulting certain protected public officials or employees.

Using physical threats against a public official or employee that places them in fear of imminent serious bodily harm is also aggravated assault.

Definitions Relating to Aggravated Assault

Aggravated assaults typically involve acts that result in "serious bodily injuries" or cause bodily injuries to "public officials or employees."

Serious bodily injury is an injury that creates a substantial risk of death, causes serious permanent disfigurement, or causes protracted loss or impairment of any body part or organ. For example, a gunshot or stab wound would likely be a serious bodily injury. Broken bones, severe burns, deep lacerations requiring stitches, internal damage to organs, and any injuries requiring surgery are other examples.

Public officials and employees include the following individuals while engaged in their professional duties:

  • teachers, school board members, and school employees
  • police, law enforcement, and conservation officers
  • probation, correctional, and parole officers
  • private detectives
  • firefighters and emergency medical services employees
  • judges, district attorneys, attorneys general, and public defenders
  • employees of the Department of Environmental Protection
  • employees of county children's service agencies
  • health care practitioners and technicians
  • public utility and transportation employees, and
  • state officials and legislators.

Examples of Aggravated Assault

Shooting or stabbing someone are generally the most straightforward examples of aggravated assault. A defendant who intentionally strikes another in the back of the head and causes them to lose consciousness has likely committed aggravated assault. It's also an aggravated assault to try to run into a police officer with a vehicle (here, a deadly weapon) to break down a barricade. Pushing a school employee or social services worker while in a heated argument can also be aggravated assault, even if the defendant caused or tried to cause only bodily injuries.

What Is the Punishment for Assault and Aggravated Assault in Pennsylvania?

Simple assaults carry misdemeanor penalties, while aggravated assaults are felonies.

Penalties for Simple Assault

In general, simple assault is a misdemeanor of the second degree, which carries up to two years' incarceration and a $5,000 fine. If the assault happens during a fight entered into by mutual consent, it's a misdemeanor of the third degree, punishable by up to one year behind bars and a fine of $2,500.

Simple assault against a child under the age of 12 by an adult (18 or older) increases the penalty to a misdemeanor of the first degree. A convicted defendant faces up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Penalties for Aggravated Assault

Aggravated assaults are felonies. An aggravated assault that does not involve serious bodily injury (against an officer, for example) is a felony of the second degree. This felony carries up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.

If the person causes, threatens, or attempts to cause serious bodily injuries, the aggravated assault increases to a felony of the first degree. A convicted defendant faces up to 20 years of prison time and a fine of up to $25,000.

Defenses to Assault and Aggravated Assault Charges in Pennsylvania

A person facing assault or aggravated assault charges can fight the charges in several ways, including by poking holes in the prosecution's case or by raising an affirmative defense.

Self-defense. A defendant might claim self-defense or defense of others if the alleged victim started the altercation or was about to. To be successful, the defendant can only use as much force as is immediately necessary to prevent the threatened injuries. (Resisting arrest, even an unlawful one, is not permitted under this defense.)

Reasonable doubt. The defense might also try to poke holes in the prosecution's case by arguing the prosecution failed to prove the required intent or injuries. In this case, the defense might be able to get the charges dismissed or reduced.

Getting Legal Advice and Representation

An assault conviction could result in time behind bars and a hefty fine. If you're charged with assault or any other crime, 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, 505, 506, 1101, 1103, 1104, 2301, 2701, 2702 (2024).)

Talk to a Defense attorney
We've helped 95 clients find attorneys today.
There was a problem with the submission. Please refresh the page and try again
Full Name is required
Email is required
Please enter a valid Email
Phone Number is required
Please enter a valid Phone Number
Zip Code is required
Please add a valid Zip Code
Please enter a valid Case Description
Description is required

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you