Federal Assault Crimes

By , Attorney

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. (18 U.S.C. § 113(a)(4).)

Federal Territory

Certain assaults are federal offenses simply because of where they take place—on United States property. Attacks that occur on the grounds of a national park, at a federal prison, or on board a United States ship, among other places, are federal crimes.

The following assault offenses are subject to federal prosecution if they occur on U.S. territory.

Assault with intent to commit murder or a felony

Assault with intent to commit murder is exactly what it sounds like—an assault designed to kill. (18 U.S.C. § 113(a)(1).) It's a separate crime to assault someone with the purpose of committing any other felony—for instance, pointing a knife in order to rob someone. (18 U.S.C. § 113(a)(2).)

Assault with a dangerous weapon

Assault with a dangerous weapon occurs when the defendant, while intending to injure, strikes, wounds, or physically threatens the victim with a dangerous weapon. (18 U.S.C. § 113(a)(3).) A weapon is "dangerous" if it is capable of seriously harming someone, even if it's not inherently hazardous. An example is a metal chair, which can obviously cause serious injury if smashed against the head. Even seemingly innocuous items such as belts or shoes can constitute dangerous weapons if used to inflict severe injury.

Penalties for Assaults in Federal Territory

Each of the above assaults carries potential imprisonment. Most can also lead to a fine.

A simple assault results in up to six months' imprisonment. If the victim is under age 16, the maximum imprisonment increases to one year. (18 U.S.C. § 113(a)(5).)

If an assault causes "serious" injury, the potential prison sentence is as high as 10 years. (18 U.S.C. § 113(a)(6).) The injury is "serious" if it involves

  • a substantial risk of death
  • extreme physical pain
  • continued and obvious disfigurement, or
  • long-term loss or impairment of any body part. (18 U.S.C. § § 113(b)(2), 1365.)

An assault that "substantially" injures a child age 15 or younger triggers a maximum five-year prison sentence. (18 U.S.C. § 113(a)(7).) A "substantial" injury includes temporary, but substantial

  • disfigurement, or
  • loss or impairment of any part of the body. (18 U.S.C. § 113(b)(1).)

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. Assault with a dangerous weapon also carries a 10-year maximum.

Federal Officers and Employees

Other assaults are federal crimes simply because the victim is a United States 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. (18 U.S.C. § 111(a).) 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 United States 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.

The defendant who uses a "deadly or dangerous" weapon in the assault is exposed to a maximum 20-year sentence, a fine, or both. (18 U.S.C. § 111.) The 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.

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. (18 U.S.C. § 2114(a).) 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 under-cover officer while demanding what turn out to be government funds has committed the crime.

Assault with intent to take federal property 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.

Self Defense

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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