What Is the Crime of Assault?

Assault Definitions

Road Rage
RapidEye / Getty Images

Like many crimes, the exact definition of assault is defined by each state, however, in all states, it is considered an act of violence. Generally, assault is defined as any intentional act that causes a person to become fearful of imminent bodily harm. Fear of imminent bodily harm means being fearful of immediate bodily harm.

The purpose of assault laws is to deter aggressive behavior that could lead to physical harm.

It is generally a misdemeanor if it does not involve the threat of death or serious injury.

Genuine and Reasonable Fear

The fear of being physically injured must be genuine and something most reasonable people would experience under the same circumstances. It does not require that physical contact actually occurs.

Example; In a case of road rage, if a person is acting aggressively toward another driver and exits their car with clenched fists, yelling that they are going to beat up the other driver, then charges of misdemeanor assault would likely be appropriate.

Under this type of situation, most reasonable people would become fearful that the guy was about to come after them and cause them to be physically harmed.

However, not every fearful exchange between two people is considered assault.

Example; If a driver passed another driver that was driving slowly in the left lane, and as they passed they rolled down the window and yelled profanity at the slow driver, this would probably not be considered assault, even if the yelling caused the driver to feel somewhat fearful, there was no intent on the other driver's part to cause bodily harm.

Penalty

People found guilty of misdemeanor assault will usually face fines, but could possibly also face jail time depending on the circumstances surrounding the crime.

Aggravated Assault 

Aggravated assault is when a person threatens to kill another person or to cause serious bodily harm. Again, it does not require that the person physically acts on the threat.

Saying they are going to do it is enough to be slapped with an aggravated assault charge.

Example; In a case of road rage, if a person is acting aggressively toward another driver and they exit their car and point a gun at the other driver, then most reasonable people would feel fearful that they were facing imminent bodily harm.

Penalty

Aggravated assault is considered a serious felony and the penalty can be a hefty fine and maximum prison time up to 20 years in some states.

The Element of Intent

One of the major elements common in the crime of assault is the element of intent. Proving that the person charged with assault knowingly caused the victim to feel some fear of imminent bodily harm can be difficult in some circumstances.

Often times the defendant will claim that the incident was a misunderstanding or that they were joking. Sometimes they will accuse the victim of over reacting or being vindictive.

When a weapon is involved, then proving intent is not so difficult. However, other circumstances can be challenging.

Example; If a person had a fear of snakes and was sitting in a park when someone near them spots a snake, grabs it, and holds it up for everyone to see, then even though it caused the snake-fearing person to feel fear of imminent bodily harm, the person holding up the snake did not intend to cause the fear.

On the other hand, if the snake-fearing person screamed and said to get the snake away because they were deathly afraid that it would bite them, and the person holding the snake then began to move closer to them, dangling the snake in a threatening way, then the intent is clearly to cause the victim to feel that they were in danger of being physically harmed by the snake.

In this situation, the defendant would likely say that they were just joking, but because the victim reacted with a genuine emotion of fear and asked that the person gets away from them, the assault charge would likely be upheld.

Imminent Bodily Harm

Another element of assault is the element of imminent bodily harm. As mentioned, imminent bodily harm means that the person is fearful of being physically harmed at that moment, not the next day or next month, but at that exact moment, regardless of how frightening the threat may be.

Also, the threat of harming the person must include physically harming the person. Threatening a person's reputation or threatening to destroy property would not result in a conviction of an assault charge.

Assault and Battery

When physical contact does occur, then generally it is treated as a Battery charge

Return to Crimes A-Z