Federal Assault Crimes

Learn what makes an assault a federal crime and the potential penalties.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law

In the federal criminal system, an assault is an attempt to hit another person or an act that causes someone to reasonably expect impending harm. Throwing a punch is a typical example. So is intentionally pointing a gun at someone.

An assault requires neither harm nor physical contact—the crime is complete whether the assailant succeeds in hitting the other person or actually fires the gun. However, assaults also include instances when the defendant actually connects with the victim. If someone tries to—and actually does—strike, beat, or wound another, an assault has occurred.

What Is a Federal Assault Charge?

Most assault crimes are prosecuted at the state level. But certain assaults will fall under federal jurisdiction based on where the assault took place, who the victim was, or what the attacker was after.

Assaults on Federal Territory or Lands

Certain assaults are federal offenses simply because of where they take place—on U.S. property. Attacks that occur on the grounds of a national park, at a federal prison, or on board a U.S. ship, among other places, are federal crimes. (18 U.S.C. § 113 (2022).)

Assaults of Federal Officers or Employees

Other assaults are federal crimes simply because the victim is a U.S. employee. It's a federal offense to attack a federal officer or employee who is on the job—for example, a postal worker handing out mail or an IRS agent questioning a taxpayer. It's no defense that the defendant wasn't aware that the victim was a government employee.

Assault of a federal agent also occurs when someone attacks a former U.S. employee because of that employee's actions while working for the government. Assaulting a retired federal judge because of a previous ruling is an example. (18 U.S.C. § 111 (2022).)

Assault on Family Members of Certain U.S. Officials

A person who seeks to retaliate against or intimidate certain (current or former) federal officials by harming their family members can also face serious federal charges. This includes assaulting family members of U.S. officials and officers, federal judges, and federal law enforcement officers. (18 U.S.C. § 115 (2022).)

Assault in the Course of Stealing Federal Property

An assault also qualifies as a federal crime if it occurs in the course of an attempt to rob or steal mail or money or property belonging to the U.S. government. It doesn't matter if the defendant didn't know that the property belonged to the United States. So, for example, a defendant who points a gun at an undercover officer while demanding what turns out to be government funds has committed the crime. (18 U.S.C. § 2114 (2022).)

What Are the Penalties for Federal Assault Crimes

The punishment for federal assault crimes can range from months to decades in prison.

Penalties for Assault on Federal Territory

The penalties for assaults occurring on federal property depend on the intended or resulting harm, the victim, or both.

Simple assault. A simple assault results in up to six months' imprisonment. If the victim is younger than 16, the maximum imprisonment increases to one year.

Serious injury. If an assault causes "serious" injury, the potential prison sentence is as high as 10 years. The injury is "serious" if it involves substantial risk of death, extreme physical pain, continued and obvious disfigurement, or long-term loss or impairment of any body part.

Substantial injury; domestic or child assault. An assault that "substantially" injures any of the following individuals triggers a maximum five-year prison sentence: a child younger than 16, a spouse, an intimate partner, or a dating partner. A "substantial" injury includes temporary, but substantial disfigurement, or loss or impairment of any part of the body.

Strangling or suffocating. A person who assaults a spouse or dating or intimate partner by strangling or suffocating the victim (or attempting to) faces up to 10 years in prison.

Dangerous weapon. Assault with a dangerous weapon carries a 10-year maximum prison sentence. A weapon is "dangerous" if it was used in a way capable of seriously injuring someone. Virtually any object can meet this definition depending on how it's used, even a wine bottle.

Intent to commit murder or a felony. Assault with intent to commit murder results in up to 20 years' imprisonment, while assault with intent to commit a felony leads to 10 years or less.

Penalties for Assault on Federal Officers and Employees

Assault on a current or federal employee carries the following penalties:

  • for a simple assault, up to one year in prison
  • for an assault involving physical contact or intent to commit a felony, up to eight years in prison,
  • for an assault resulting in bodily injury, up to 20 years in prison, and
  • for an assault involving a "deadly or dangerous" weapon, up to 20 years in prison.

Penalties for Assault on Family Members of Certain U.S. Officials

The penalties for assaulting a family member of a U.S. official are similar to those for assaulting the official themself.

  • A simple assault carries up to one year in prison.
  • An assault involving physical contact or intent to commit a felony carries up to 10 years in prison.
  • Assault resulting in bodily injury can result in up to a 20-year prison sentence.
  • Assault resulting in serious bodily injury or involving a dangerous weapon carries up to 30 years in prison.

Penalties for Assault in the Course of Stealing Federal Property

Assault with intent to take federal property (mail, money, etc.) carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence. The potential imprisonment increases to 25 years if the defendant:

  • wounds the victim
  • uses a dangerous weapon to endanger the victim's life, or
  • has previously been convicted for a violation of the same crime.

(18 U.S.C. §§ 111, 113, 115, 2114 (2022).)

Defenses to Federal Assault Charges

Self-defense is the most common claim by defendants trying to avoid assault convictions. Use of force is legally justified when a person reasonably believes it is necessary to defend oneself or someone else against imminent harm. But even if force is appropriate, the defendant can't use more than is necessary given the circumstances. To illustrate, someone who is under attack may legally fight back against the assailant. But, once he has subdued the attacker he can't continue to beat him.

See a Lawyer

If you are charged with a federal assault crime or are being investigated for one, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately. Look for someone who regularly handles federal cases. Only an experienced attorney will be able to assess the strength of the case against you, explore any possible defenses, and represent your best interests along each step of the way.

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