Aggravated Assault

An “assault” is an attempt by one person to cause another person serious bodily harm, whether they do it on purpose, or through reckless actions, with a deliberate lack of respect for the victim’s life or safety. An “aggravated assault” is an assault for which the perpetrator faces more severe punishment because of the severity of the crime. While there is no specific type of assault classified as “aggravated,” the judicial system considers a number of things when charging a perpetrator with assault charges. To explore this concept, consider the following aggravated assault definition.

Definition of Assault


  1. The crime of attempting or threatening to do serious bodily harm to another person, or to cause that person to fear bodily harm.


1200-1250   Middle English asaut

What is Aggravated Assault?

The act of inflicting bodily harm on someone, or causing them to fear bodily harm is considered a crime in the U.S., regardless of whether actual physical harm occurs. For example, John is walking down the street carrying a bag of groceries. Bob, who is walking toward John, makes a fist and tells John to move over or he will hit him. John is stunned, and so does not move over immediately. Bob swings his fist at John’s face but misses, and John sprints away in fear. Bob may be charged with simple assault as he caused John to reasonably fear that he would suffer bodily harm if he remained.

Simple Assault vs. Aggravated Assault

Most states classify assaults as simple or aggravated according to the circumstances surrounding the offense. Simple assault is most commonly recognized as an attempt or threat to injure another person without actually striking them or causing bodily harm. Aggravated assault occurs when the crime is taken a step further, such as when a weapon is used, or the harm or threat takes place in certain circumstances. For instance, threatening a person with a fist is often considered simple assault, but if a perpetrator threatens another person with a baseball bat, it would be considered aggravated assault.

Example of Aggravated Assault

If Bob, from the example above, moves his jacket aside to show to John that he is carrying a gun in his belt, he would likely be charged with aggravated assault, rather than simple assault. This would be true, even though he did not make a physical attempt to hit or shoot John, because he made a threat with a weapon, causing John to reasonably believe he would be harmed.

Deadly Weapons

A deadly weapon is any item that can be used to cause serious or fatal injury to a person or animal. Deadly weapons include such weapons as guns and knives, but other instruments can be considered deadly if they are used to threaten or attack someone. Such weapons of opportunity may include boards, baseball bats, rocks, bricks, ice picks, letter openers, tools, or any object that could cause serious harm or death.

In some jurisdictions, people with HIV (the human immunodeficiency virus) who have had unprotected sex with a person not aware of the disease have been charged with using a “deadly weapon.” The reasoning is that a person who knows he carries HIV exposes another to the deadly virus basically assaults the other person with a weapon capable of causing death.

Degrees of Aggravated Assault

Many states break down the crime of assault even further than the basic and aggravated assault charges in some jurisdictions. By using first- through fourth-degree classifications, the judicial system is able to take into account the exact nature of the offense.

  • First-Degree Aggravated Assault – refers to a deliberate act in which the perpetrator used premeditated malice. The perpetrator must have had the intent to cause, or to attempt to cause, serious bodily injury (also “great bodily harm”).
  • Second-Degree Aggravated Assault – refers to a deliberate act in which there was no premeditation. This takes into account the mental state of the perpetrator at the time of the assault.
  • Third-Degree Assault – refers to an act in which the perpetrator attempts to cause less serious bodily harm, making this a common charge when two individuals are involved in a fight.
  • Fourth-Degree Assault – refers to minor threats of harm, or causing the victim to fear being harmed.

Great Bodily Harm

The term “great bodily harm” is used interchangeably with “serious bodily injury,” “grievous bodily harm,” and “great bodily injury.” These terms refer to injuries that cause extreme physical pain, unconsciousness, serious or permanent injury or disfigurement, or long-term loss of function of any organ or body part. Great bodily harm also refers to the infliction of any injury that creates a substantial risk of death.

Other Factors Leading to Aggravated Assault

When determining whether to charge a perpetrator with simple or aggravated assault, many things are taken into consideration, including (1) use of a weapon, (2) identity of the victim, (3) intent of the perpetrator, and (4) extent of the injury caused.

Use of a Weapon

Use of a weapon during the act of assault constitutes aggravated assault. This is true whether the weapon causes any injury. Simply displaying the weapon to the victim while assaulting them may result in this serious criminal charge.

Identity of the Victim

Some assaults are upgraded to aggravated assault based on the identity of the victim. For example, in most states, assaulting a police officer or firefighter results in an automatic charge of aggravated assault. Assaulting a child may also result in the more serious charge of aggravated assault.

Intent of the Perpetrator

The mental state or intent of the perpetrator at the time of the crime comes into play in determining the severity of the assault charge. For example, when a perpetrator intends to cause the victim severe harm, or intends to cause the victim to fear being severely harmed, the assault is considered aggravated. Some states even classify reckless behavior as aggravated assault.

Severity of the Injury

If a victim suffers serious injuries, an assault will be classified as aggravated. Many states follow guidelines that specify particular injuries to determine the seriousness of the assault, but also allow law enforcement and the judicial system to consider the severity of injury. If the victim dies at a later time as a result of the aggravated assault, the judicial system may upgrade the charge to murder or manslaughter.

Aggravated Domestic Assault

Aggravated domestic assault differs from ordinary aggravated assault, in that it refers to the act of infliction of serious injury on someone with whom the perpetrator has a domestic, or “family,” relationship. This relationship includes parents, siblings, spouse or former spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend, or anyone residing in the same household. In a domestic assault, it is not necessary for a weapon to be used to achieve a charge of aggravated domestic assault. If the assault is upon a child or minor, the assault may be charged as child abuse or neglect, depending on the circumstances.

Potential Defenses to Aggravated Assault

Defenses to aggravated assault vary by jurisdiction, but some common defenses that apply to all levels of assault include consent, official acts, and acting in the prevention of a crime.

  • Consent – refers to situations in which the victim consented to being harmed, such as in a boxing or wrestling match, or during mutual horseplay.
  • Prevention of crime – refers to a situation in which the accused was protecting himself or others.
  • Defense of property – refers to a situation in which the accused acted in the defense of his property or personal belongings. This situation would be highly subjective to the courts, in that many acts might be considered excessive when considering the actual threat.

Penalties and Consequences of Aggravated Assault

In most states, simple assault is a misdemeanor charge, and aggravated assault is a felony. Punishment for aggravated assault may include a fine of as much as $10,000, and imprisonment for many years. Additional penalties and consequences of aggravated assault often include an order to attend an anger management program, and to make restitution to the victim.

Consequences of aggravated assault charge can impact a person’s life tremendously, as this type of conviction remains on a person’s record where it may hinder future employment or housing opportunities. In addition, convicted felons cannot vote, serve on a jury, or own a firearm. Many states have three-strikes or habitual offender laws in which multiple felony convictions may result in a life sentence in prison, regardless of the severity of the individual crimes. In many states this rule applies whether all of the crimes occurred at the same time or were spread out over several years.

Aggravated Sexual Assault

Aggravated sexual assault, sometimes referred to as “aggravated rape,” is a more serious form of rape or simple sexual assault. Like other types of aggravated assault, many states break down aggravated sexual assault into degrees indicating the seriousness of the offense. Circumstances that may elevate sexual assault to aggravated sexual assault include:

  • The perpetrator uses, threatens or shows a weapon during the act
  • The perpetrator causes great bodily harm
  • The perpetrator permanently disfigures the victim
  • The perpetrator shows blatant disregard for human life during the act
  • The perpetrator attempts to end the victim’s life during the act.
  • The perpetrator administers a drug to the victim as part of the crime.
  • The victim is physically helpless or unable to give consent to sex. This includes victims under the influence of alcohol or drugs, as well as victims who are mentally incapacitated, elderly, or vulnerable in some manner.
  • The offense involves incest, or the act is committed by a stepparent or other guardian.
  • The assault is committed during the commission of another crime such as burglary.

Example of Aggravated Sexual Assault

As Jane is walking home alone one night after class, a masked man jumps out of the bushes in front of her. Jane screams, and the man strikes her several times to quiet her, then begins ripping her clothing. Jane scratches the man causing him to lose focus, and she uses the opportunity to run away to safety. The man is charged with aggravated assault because he ripped Jane’s clothing, which showed his intent to rape her. Although the man’s attempt to rape Jane was unsuccessful, the fact that he intended to cause her harm, and caused her reasonable fear, the crime constitutes aggravated assault.

Penalties and Consequences of Aggravated Sexual Assault

In addition to imprisonment and the other common penalties for committing aggravated assault, a person convicted of aggravated sexual assault will be required to register with the state’s sex offender registration and notification program, which will cause life-long consequences for the offender. If the offender is sentenced to prison, he may be required to undergo therapy or other rehabilitation program during his incarnation.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Consent – To agree, approve, permit, comply, or yield.
  • Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.
  • Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
  • Jurisdiction – A territory in which the court has the right, power, and authority to administer justice by hearing and resolve conflicts.
  • Premeditation – The act of planning something beforehand; planning, plotting, or pondering before the commission of a crime.
  • Malice – To act with evil intent; having the intent or desire to do evil.
  • Negligent – Failure to act as, or to exercise the level of care of, another reasonably prudent person would be expected to act.
  • Offense – A violation of law or rule, the committing of an illegal act.
  • Recklessly – To act with no concern for the consequences, without caution, or carelessly.