Assault Laws and Penalties in Washington State

The basics of assault classifications and penalties in Washington state.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated May 16, 2024

Assault crimes in Washington state range from gross misdemeanors to class A felonies with life sentences. Learn how Washington classifies and distinguishes the different levels of assault crimes.

What Is an Assault in Washington?

In Washington, a person can commit assault in one of three ways, by:

  • attempting to inflict bodily harm on another and having the apparent ability to do so
  • placing another person in fear of bodily harm, or
  • intentionally touching or striking another in a harmful or offensive manner (called a battery in some states).

An assault occurs even if no injuries result. However, the penalties will increase if injuries result or the risk of injury escalates.

How Does Washington State Classify and Punish Assault Crimes?

Assault is a serious crime in Washington and can land a person behind bars for years or decades.

Degrees of Assault Charges in Washington

Washington divides assault crimes into four degrees—with first-degree being the most serious and fourth-degree the least serious.

The law primarily divides assault crimes by level of harm inflicted or intended, whether a firearm or deadly weapon was used, and whether the victim belonged to a protected class (such as law enforcement or healthcare workers). The harshest penalties apply when the defendant assaults someone with the intent of causing great bodily harm, which is considered injuries just short of death.

Is Assault a Felony in Washington?

First- through third-degree assaults always carry felony penalties. Fourth-degree (or simple) assault carries gross misdemeanor penalties—but if the person is a repeat domestic violence offender, this misdemeanor assault bumps up to a felony as well.

Assault in the First Degree in Washington: Crime and Penalties

First-degree assault occurs when a defendant has intent to commit great bodily harm and does one of the following:

  • assaults another with a firearm, a deadly weapon, or any force or means that's likely to cause great bodily harm or death
  • assaults another and causes great bodily harm
  • administers, exposes, or causes some to take a poison or destructive or noxious substance, or
  • transmits HIV to a child or vulnerable adult.

Assault in the first degree carries class A felony penalties of up to life imprisonment and a $50,000 fine.

Examples. The classic example of first-degree assault is shooting someone with a gun. Even if the person shoots and misses, as long as the prosecutor can prove the defendant intended to cause great bodily harm, this would still be a first-degree assault.

Great bodily harm refers to bodily injuries that create a probability of death, cause a significant serious permanent disfigurement, or cause permanent loss or impairment to a body part or organ. For instance, stab wounds that caused a victim to lose a spleen were considered great bodily harm. Repeated kicks to a victim's head was also considered an assault that could cause great bodily harm. Cutting someone on the face and leaving a visible and permanent scar could also fall under this definition.

Deadly weapons include loaded and unloaded firearms, explosives, and any other weapon, device, instrument, article, or substance that is capable of causing death or substantial bodily harm by how it's used. For example, a knife, vehicle, glass bottle, or crowbar could be a deadly weapon. A court also found a trained attack dog to be a deadly weapon.

(Wash. Rev. Code § 9A.36.011 (2024).)

Assault in the Second Degree in Washington: Crime and Penalties

Second-degree assault covers the following acts of harm:

  • intentionally assaulting another and recklessly inflicting substantial bodily harm (including to an unborn child)
  • assaulting another with a deadly weapon
  • with intent to cause bodily harm, administering or causing someone to take poison or a destructive or noxious substance
  • with intent to commit a felony, assaulting another
  • knowingly inflicting bodily harm by means designed to cause pain or agony equal to torture, or
  • assaulting another by strangulation or suffocation.

Assault in the second degree is a class B felony, punishable by up to 10 years of prison time and a $20,000 fine. However, if the defendant's act was found to be sexually motivated, the offense is a class A felony with a maximum life sentence.

Examples. Pointing a loaded or unloaded gun at another is an example of second-degree assault. Threatening, attempting, or actually punching someone in the face could also be second-degree assault. A person who intends to steal a car (felony theft) and hits someone while driving off is another example.

Substantial bodily harm is more than physical pain or minor injuries. It can include a fracture, broken bone, or temporary but substantial disfigurement or loss or impairment of a body part or organ. For example, a broken nose or jaw would be considered substantial bodily harm. A black eye that's swollen shut would be another example, as would a laceration requiring stitches. Other examples could be a severely sprained wrist, a concussion, or severe internal bruising requiring prescription pain medication.

First vs. second degree. Second-degree assault differs from first-degree assault based on the defendant's intent. All first-degree charges require the prosecutor to show the defendant intended to cause another great bodily harm. That showing is not required for second-degree assault.

(Wash. Rev. Code § 9A.36.021 (2024).)

Assault in the Third Degree in Washington: Crime and Penalties

Third-degree assault crimes in Washington involve assaults against protected classes of victims, as well as assaults that cause bodily harm through acts of criminal negligence.

A person commits third-degree assault by:

  • negligently causing bodily harm to another while using a weapon or instrument likely to cause harm
  • negligently causing another bodily harm that involves substantial pain and suffering, or
  • assaulting a protected victim who's performing their official duties.

Assault in the third degree carries class C felony penalties, punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Criminal negligence means a person failed to be aware that their actions carried a substantial risk of harm (when a reasonable person would have known and exercised caution). For example, swinging nunchucks without being trained could be an example of criminal negligence.

Bodily harm means physical pain, injury, or impairment of a physical condition. For example, bodily harm could include bruises, scratches, cuts, or pain from hair pulling or stomping on a foot.

Protected victims include transit operators and employees, school bus drivers, firefighters, law enforcement officers, healthcare providers, judges, court employees, and process servers. The definition of protected victim also extends to immediate supervisors and many co-workers of these protected occupations.

(Wash. Rev. Code § 9A.36.031 (2024).)

Assault in the Fourth Degree in Washington: Crime and Penalties

Most other assaults fall under fourth-degree assault—generally, those that result in minimal harm and don't involve a weapon or protected victim. For example, a person who shoves someone to the ground, attempts to slap someone, or directs a kick at another and misses has committed fourth-degree assault.

Fourth-degree (or simple) assault is a gross misdemeanor. A convicted defendant faces up to 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine. However, the law imposes class C felony penalties if the assault involves domestic violence and the defendant has two or more prior domestic-violence convictions. Learn more about Washington Domestic Violence Laws.

(Wash. Rev. Code § 9A.36.041 (2024).)

Enhanced Penalties for Assault Crimes in Washington

Additional or enhanced penalties can apply when assault involves a child or a hate crime.

Assault of a Child

An adult who assaults a child younger than 13 can face felony penalties for assault of a child in the first, second, or third degree. These crimes carry similar penalties to general assault but don't require the severity of harm or level of intent required for those crimes. They also impose harsher penalties if a person engages in a pattern of child assault.

(Wash. Rev. Code §§ 9A.36.120, 9A.36.130, 9A.36.140 (2024).)

Hate Crimes

A person can face additional class C felony charges for assaulting someone as a hate crime. Washington law makes it a crime to maliciously and intentionally target a victim based on their perceived or actual race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression or identity, or mental, physical, or sensory disability.

(Wash. Rev. Code § 9A.36.080 (2024).)

Defenses to Assault Charges in Washington

A person facing 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 necessary to prevent or attempt to prevent the assault. (Wash. Rev. Code § 9A.16.020 (2024).)

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 fines. If you're charged with assault or any other crime, contact a Washington 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.

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