In a criminal law context, the crime of assault may be categorized as a general intent crime or a specific intent crime. When a person commits the general intent crime of assault (e.g., assault as a threat), assault is typically defined as the intent to create reasonable apprehension of immediate bodily harm. If a person is charged with the specific intent version of assault, then it is usually described as an intent to commit criminal battery (e.g., assault as attempted battery).

It should be noted, however, that the above definitions will vary by jurisdiction. Additionally, a handful of states have chosen to combine the crimes of assault and battery into one criminal act within their own state criminal statutes.

Regardless of which legal definition applies, the assaulter does not actually need to injure another person in order to be charged with criminal assault. So long as they convince the victim that they are about to be injured by some type of violent act that is more serious than a verbal threat, their actions will most likely qualify as an assault.

Now, if an assault is carried out against a police officer, then it will be known as the crime of “assaulting a police officer.” Much like simple assault, the definition for this crime will vary by jurisdiction.

For instance, in New York, the assaulter must have committed an assault on an individual that they knew (or reasonably should have known) was a law enforcement officer and it must have been done with the intent to prevent the officer from executing a lawful duty.

On the other hand, California law states that the assaulter must have willfully and unlawfully touched an individual that they either knew or should have reasonably known was law enforcement while they were performing their duties. Though the differences between the two state statutes may seem slight, you should still be able to notice them.

There are also a minority of states that have opted not to create such a crime. In states that do not recognize assaulting a police officer as a separate crime, the act will be considered an “aggravating factor” to an assault charge. Aggravating factors are elements that convert misdemeanor assault charges into felony offenses, which tend to be much more serious crimes.

Finally, while the crime of assaulting a police officer shares many of the same elements as simple assault, the fact that it is committed against a law officer enhances the degree of the crime (similar to aggravating factors). Therefore, a conviction will result in a much harsher penalty.

For example, if you are playing recreational baseball and you threaten to strike the umpire while chasing them with your bat, then you could be charged with assault. If you are also convicted, you may have to pay criminal fines, serve a county jail sentence of one year or less, and/or be placed on probation.

In contrast, if you smash a beer bottle and use it as a weapon to jab at police while they are trying to arrest you, then you will be charged with assaulting a police officer or aggravated assault (depending on the state). If convicted, you may be ordered to pay criminal fines of $1,000 or more, serve a state prison sentence of one year or longer, be put on parole after prison, and/or have to pay restitution.

Why Is It a More Serious Crime to Assault a Police Officer?

There are several reasons as to why assaulting a police officer is considered a more serious crime than assaulting the average citizen. For one, police officers are vested with the power of enforcing the law. Thus, when an issue arises where a law enforcer (or member of the government) is attacked, legislators regard them as hostile acts towards governmental authority and as a result, create laws that will punish the attacker accordingly.

Second, there is an implied presumption that when a person does not willingly listen to an officer while they are on duty, that the person is committing some other crime, such as evading an arrest.

A third factor that enhances this assault crime is that law enforcement has a duty to maintain peace and protect the public from harm. By carrying out an assault while an officer is on duty, it can deter them from responding to an emergency for fear of being attacked, can disrupt an ongoing emergency (e.g., the officer is helping someone who is in trouble and then gets attacked by another individual while assisting), and/or can endanger any innocent bystanders.

Additionally, in states that recognize assaulting a police officer as a separate crime, a state may also include factors that will escalate the crime even further to “aggravated assault of a police officer.” For example, if a person attempts to intimidate or use a firearm on a police officer, then they can be charged with aggravated assault of a police officer.

Again, whether or not this degree of crime exists will depend on state laws. Defendants convicted of this high-level crime will most certainly be facing a prison sentence for all of the reasons that were just discussed.

What Are the Penalties for Assaulting a Police Officer?

The criminal penalties issued for assaulting a police officer will largely depend on the laws of the jurisdiction hearing the case as well as on the circumstances surrounding a particular matter. Some potential penalties that a convicted defendant may receive include a jail or prison sentence, parole, probation, community service, criminal fines, and/or restitution.

Given the serious nature of this offense, in most cases, a convicted defendant should expect to serve some amount of time in a county jail or state prison. In order to determine the amount of assault on a police officer jail time that the defendant may receive, they should review the laws in their jurisdiction and compare it with the facts of their case.

For example, a defendant who commits assault and battery on a law enforcement officer will receive a longer prison sentence than a defendant who only commits assault against an officer.

In addition, a defendant should also consider how their jurisdiction classifies the crime (e.g., misdemeanor vs. felony, Class A vs. Class C, violent vs. nonviolent, etc.). Generally speaking, if they are charged and convicted of committing a Class A violent felony, then they could be facing a prison sentence of up to 20 or 25 years, to life.

Are There Any Defenses to Assaulting a Police Officer?

As with the other sections in this article, defenses to assaulting a police officer will primarily be contingent on the laws of a certain jurisdiction and the facts of a specific case. In general, however, some defenses that a defendant in such a case might be able to raise include:

  • Self-defense;
  • Lack of proof or insufficient evidence;
  • Constitutional violations;
  • The age of the defendant;
  • False accusations made by the officer; and/or
  • If the defendant has a mental or physical disability.

It is important to note, however, that the defenses listed above may not apply in every case and also may not serve as a complete defense against the charges. For instance, while a minor can cite age as a defense, age alone will not necessarily get the case dismissed. Instead, an age defense may be used to reduce the severity of their punishment (e.g., being placed on probation as opposed to being sent to a juvenile detention center).

Do I Need to Hire an Attorney for Assaulting a Police Officer Charges?

Assault on its own is already considered a serious criminal offense, but when it is coupled with the crime of “assaulting a police officer,” then you are automatically facing jail time in the majority of states. Charges that result in a conviction and subsequent prison time will remain on your criminal record indefinitely, which among many other things, will affect your ability to secure housing and a job.

Therefore, if you have been charged with assaulting a police officer, you should contact a local criminal lawyer as soon as possible. An experienced criminal lawyer can inform you of your legal rights and can make sure that those rights are protected. Your lawyer will also be able to predict the potential penalties you might receive based on state laws and the facts of your specific case, as well as can determine whether there are any defenses available.

In addition, your lawyer can go over criminal defense strategies with you and will be able to explain important details, such as why entering a plea deal (as opposed to going to court) may be a better option for you.