What Is Simple Assault?

Updated December 15, 2023
6 min read
What Is Simple Assault?

Causing a physical altercation with another person is a crime, with some incidents carrying more severe punishments than others. In some cases, the individual does not need to cause actual harm or physical injury to the victim for it to be considered unlawful. Instead, the mere threat of committing a violent act is seen as a criminal offense. Alternatively, an individual can be arrested for attempting to hurt another person even if they never touched them. Both of these are legally known as examples of simple assault.

In this article, we look more thoroughly at the elements of simple assault to provide an accurate definition. We then run through simple assault punishments, charges, and defense strategies for lawyers working on these cases.

Definition of Simple Assault

Simple assault is a type of assault as defined in the US legal system. Compared to other types of assault and battery, it carries the most relaxed punishment and is the least serious form. Put concisely, it can be defined as either:

  • The intentional act of causing another person to be in fear of a battery;

Or

  • The attempt to cause harm to another person where the violent act is never committed.

This differs from a few other related crimes. Often, people confuse simple and aggravated assault. Both are similar, but aggravated assault is a more severe crime. In these cases, the threat of injury is more severe and can even result in hospitalization or disfigurement. Aggravated assault also often involves a firearm or other weapon. Simple assault is also separate yet related to battery. For a battery case, physical contact must be made with the victim, whereas this is not a requirement for simple assault cases. However, where a physical threat occurs and injury is the result, the defendant can be charged with both battery and assault.

Elements of Simple Assault

As with all criminal cases, there are certain elements of simple assault that must be proven to obtain a conviction. These are as follows:

  1. Intent: The defendant must have threatened another person and instilled fear of physical harm. This can be in the form of gestures or words, but it must convey an imminent threat to the victim.

  2. Reasonable Apprehension: The victim must genuinely believe that they face significant risk and that the threat given is real, directed at them, and likely to be carried through by the defendant. There is a belief that real harm will probably occur.

  3. Harm: There must be some form of harm to the victim. This can be physical in nature, but this is not required. Instead, the emotional harm from violent threats can be enough for a conviction of simple assault.

Examples of Simple Assault

To better understand what incidents are classified as a simple assault, here are a few examples:

  • Pushing someone away from you in an argument;
  • Verbally threatening an individual with violence;
  • Raising a fist and moving in a threatening manner towards a person.

What Is the Penalty for Simple Assault?

According to U.S. law, simple assault cases are classified as a misdemeanor dealt with at the state level. In most states, misdemeanors are punishable by fines of up to $1,000 and between 6 and 12 months jail time in a county prison. However, simple assault punishments vary from state to state and depend on each state’s sentencing statute or guidelines. For example:

  • New Jersey: According to N.J.S.T. 2C § 12-1, most simple assaults are classified as disorderly person offenses, which are punishable by up to 6 months in jail and $1,000 in fines. If the offense occurs during a mutual fight, these penalties drop to a maximum of 90 days in jail and $500 in fines. 

  • Arizona: Under A.R.S. § 13-1203, simple assaults are categorized into class II and III misdemeanors. Class III misdemeanors carry penalties of up to 30 days in jail and $500 fines. It refers to touching a person in a threatening way. In class II cases, physical contact isn’t required. Instead, a gesture or verbal threat is sufficient. For class II simple assault cases, the punishment is up to four months in jail and $750 in fines.  

  • California: CPC §240 states that penalties of up to six months in jail, fines of up to $1,000, or both can be handed out to individuals convicted of simple assault.

What Are the Factors that Affect the Penalty for Simple Assault?

Even within one state, the charges for simple assault are far from simple. There is not one set penalty across the bar, and when deciding on a conviction, the judge will weigh the individual circumstances for each case. Based on all factors, the judge will determine the length of the sentence and how this sentence will be served, such as solely in jail or serving a portion of the sentence on probation. In misdemeanor cases, most defendants have the option to participate in community service or house arrest, depending on the case specifics.

Examples of factors that could affect the penalty upon conviction:

  • Whether this is a first-time or habitual offense;

  • If there are any drugs or alcohol in the alleged victim’s system;

  • Whether the defendant was provoked by the plaintiff;

  • Mental health or disabilities of the defendant.

How To Beat a Simple Assault Charge

As a defense lawyer, there are several potential defenses you can raise to defend your client against simple assault charges. The best strategy depends on the specifics of the case and state laws. The following are some of the most common possible defenses that a defense attorney can raise to try to avoid a conviction and simple assault consequences:

  • Self-Defense: The most common strategy is to raise a self-defense claim. In these circumstances, the lawyer will argue that the defendant was acting in a threatening manner or attempted to cause injury as a way to protect themselves or others from harm.

  • Mistaken Identity: Defense attorneys can provide evidence that the defendant’s identity has been mistaken, and they are not responsible for committing the crime. Whether this is a suitable argument depends on the evidence presented, what witnesses exist, if any, whether the crime is on video, and more.

  • Accidental Harm: One of the elements a prosecutor must prove to obtain a  simple assault conviction is intent. As such, one of the defenses you can choose to raise is to argue that the incident occurred accidentally. In these cases, the alleged victim may be able to file a civil lawsuit, but no criminal conviction for simple assault would be possible.

  • Consent: Where the victim consented to the assault, the defendant cannot face simple assault punishments. Most people won’t consent to be assaulted, but mutual combat falls into this category. As such, if the defendant only assaulted the victim as they were in a mutually combative situation, this can cause the judge to drop all charges in some states.

  • High Five Defense: In some cases, physical contact that could be perceived as threatening was not meant as a threat and had no real criminal intent. For example, sports teams often push and touch each other as a means of celebrating after a game. The action was intentional and not an accident, but held no real imminent threat. If this can be shown, it’s possible that all simple assault charges could be dropped, and the defendant walks free.

Conclusion

Simple assault refers to the threat or attempted injury of another individual. Despite no physical contact, bodily injury, or battery being required, simple assault is still a serious crime and is considered an act of violence. In most states, it is punishable with 6 to 12 months imprisonment, up to $1,000 in fines, and a criminal record. Therefore, retaining a strong criminal defense lawyer is essential to navigate the court process and have all charges dropped. If this isn’t possible, an experienced criminal defense lawyer will do their best to minimize the penalties upon conviction to the extent possible.

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