What is an aggravated assault in Pennsylvania?

In Pennsylvania, like many jurisdictions, there are different degrees of assault. Assault is either a misdemeanor or a felony offense in the Commonwealth. If assault is a misdemeanor it’s defined as a simple assault in which the alleged perpetrator attempts to cause or intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly causes bodily injury to another person. Simple assault is also committed where the perpetrator acts negligently with a deadly weapon, causing bodily injury. A simple assault is a misdemeanor of the second degree. If the defense can establish that it was committed during a fight, entered into by “mutual consent” then making it’s a misdemeanor of the third degree. It’s misdemeanor of the first degree if the victim is under the age of 12 and the perpetrator is 18 or older.

Aggravated assault occurs when the accused attempts to cause serious bodily injury to another or causes serious bodily injury intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly under circumstances “manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life”. An aggravated assault is also committed when a person causes or intentionally or knowingly causes bodily injury with a deadly weapon. There is also an aggravated assault crime reserved for contact with law enforcement and other enumerated person (fire fighter, paramedics, judge) which is beyond the scope of this short article.

A critical component of the aggravated assault crime is malice. Malice is established where there is “wickedness” or “hardness of heart, cruelty, recklessness of consequence, and a mind regardless of social duty”. A person doesn’t need to target a specific victim to commit an aggravated assault. Specific intent to injure a specific person isn’t required in Pennsylvania. The prosecution may also establish aggravated assault beyond a reasonable doubt under an accomplice liability theory. Accomplice liability isn’t the same as conspiracy and doesn’t require that a defendant form an agreement with the co-conspirator. Accomplice liability only requires that the accused person actively participate in such a way that it aids his cohorts and that aid was intended to facilitate crime.

It’s important to understand, however, that if you’re charged with either aggravated or simple assault in Pennsylvania you can and should assert a self-defense argument if there are facts to support it. Self-defense falls under Section 505 of the Pennsylvania Crimes Code and once the defense asserts it, the burden passes to the Commonwealth (prosecution) to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused’s act wasn’t justifiable self-defense. The prosecution, however, can meet this burden to establish any of the following:

  • The accused didn’t reasonably believe that he was in danger of death or serious bodily injury
  • The accused provoked or continued the use of force
  • The accused had a duty to retreat and retreat was possible with complete safety

The defense and prosecution will both make or arguments with regards to self-defense and a judge or jury will have to decide whether the accused’s belief was 1) reasonable, 2) free of provocation, and 3) whether the accused had a duty to retreat.

This analysis not only requires a judge or jury to look at the reasonableness of the belief but also the issue of provocation. Provocation is key in this situation because a person can’t assert a self-defense argument if he started the incident which ultimately required him to act in self-defense.

If you’re charged with the aggravated assault or simple assault it’s important that your defense attorney consider a self-defense argument especially if the victim has significant injuries. If there are significant injuries, the prosecution will argue that you intended to commit serious bodily injury and will seek a conviction for a felony offense. Even if you are just convicted of a simple assault (misdemeanor) this conviction will follow you and hinder your ability to obtain certain employment positions and professional opportunities. For more information on criminal defense strategies, I encourage you to read my books, watch my videos and subscribe to my monthly newsletter.