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What is Felony Assault?

By Theresa Smith
Updated May 16, 2024
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Felony assault is a type of crime that involves intentional injury perpetrated by one person against one or more others. The specifics of the crime can and do vary based on jurisdiction, but in general it’s a crime with three core components: an intent to cause injury; a violent or deadly weapon; and an actual physical injury that results. Threats don’t usually count, in other words, and attempts that fail can’t usually be prosecuted with felony charges, either. The law is usually written in a very general way that can be difficult to apply to complex, nuanced situations. In most cases, there is often room for lawyers and other legal advocates to finesse specific facts into these broader frameworks, and as such, whether someone is charged with or ultimately convicted of this sort of felony is often highly fact-dependent.

Understanding Assault Generally

The term “assault” is a legal word used to describe an unwanted violation of a person’s space. In many places, even a realistic threat of an attack or violation will qualify. Assault is usually broken down into three categories in ascending order of seriousness. Simple assault is typically anything that causes a person to fear for his or her immediate safety. Assault and battery happens when this threat is ramped up to actual violence, though the contact doesn’t have to be serious; even something like a slap on the face usually counts. Finally, aggravated assault happens when a perpetrator follows up threats of violence with actual, serious harm inflicted on another. Nearly all felony cases are aggravated assaults.

When a Crime Becomes a Felony

Many different sorts of crimes can be labeled felonies. This labeling is basically an indication of how serious the charges are. Under most systems, felony charges are the most intense and carry the most severe punishments. An assault is determined to have reached the felony level only once a court determines that the facts warrant it.

Most courts require that crimes meet specific pre-ordained thresholds before they can be charged or tried as felonies, and even then there’s no guarantee that a person will actually be convicted. Getting a felony conviction typically requires that the prosecutors prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the crime in question falls within the stated requirements of felony assault in that jurisdiction. This can be a steep burden. If the prosecutor is unable to make this case convincingly, the alleged perpetrator doesn’t always walk free, though; in many cases, he or she can still be convicted on lesser charges.

Basic Requirements

There are a couple of basic requirements that all felony assault charges usually have to have in order to be successful. The first is typically intent. Whoever is being charged with the crime usually has to have had some demonstrable desire to commit the act. Gross recklessness will sometimes count for this. In these instances, a person who didn’t actually intend to harm anyone when she walked through a crowded public place with a loaded gun could still be charged with felony-level assault if the gun wasn’t properly guarded and went off accidentally, injuring bystanders. The logic here is that she should have known that her actions could cause harm, and was criminally reckless when she didn’t better protect her weapon. Recklessness sometimes influences charges brought against drivers who cause major car accidents, too.

In most cases there is usually also a weapon requirement. In order to be elevated to a felony, an assault must usually be perpetrated with a deadly or potentially deadly weapon. Knives, guns, and lethal chemicals are some of the most common, but cars and other vehicles can count, too. Even someone’s bare hands could qualify if, say, that person was a martial arts expert.

Lastly, the crime must have actually effected some sort of physical injury. Unlike simple assaults, a threat isn’t enough in these cases. Mental trauma or distress won’t usually qualify, either. The injury doesn’t typically have to be serious or life threatening — getting grazed by a bullet will usually count — but it does have to be documented.

Jurisdictional Differences

There can be a great deal of difference from place to place when it comes to specifically defining felony-level assault. Most countries and many individual localities have written their own specifically worded criminal codes that define the relevant aspects of these and similar offenses. Anyone who is looking for a more precise idea of felony assault in a given place is usually advised to consult the legal codes applicable there for the most up-to-date information.

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Discussion Comments
By SemperFiE5 — On Mar 21, 2012

Scenario: Driver A, with passenger, runs a red light and causes a collision with Driver B, also with a passenger. Driver A then attempts to switch positions with the passenger and flee the scene.

Passenger of Driver B’s vehicle gives foot chase and is confronted by Driver A. When Driver A makes an aggressive gesture, passenger of other vehicle produces a gun (legally owned and lisenced to carry).

Passenger of Driver B’s vehicle arrested/charged with felony firearm/felonious assault, two counts (for both Driver A and passenger).

Passenger of vehicle B claims “self-defense.” There is then a plea deal for attempted felonious assault.

Are these charges correct? Should they not be “brandishing” (misdemeanor) or “assault” (misdemeanor)?

State law gives a mandatory sentence of two years (due to weapon being produced) if found guilty and additional time for other charges. Is this correct? Complainants were not struck with the weapon. They claim “fear of harm” but committed a felony by fleeing and the attempted assault on passenger of Vehicle B. Anyone?

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