The exact details of criminal charges depend a great deal on where you live – what’s considered a high-level misdemeanor in one state may be a low-level felony in another. Likewise, the statutory definition of certain crimes can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Although assault invariably means causing harm or acting with the intention of causing harm to another, the exact rules for what constitutes the offense depend on where you’re charged. Sometimes, just causing another person to fear an immediate physical injury is sufficient for an assault charge.
The term “assault” brings to mind images of deliberately hauling back a fist to punch someone. But, in fact, an intention to cause harm may have nothing to do with it. In such states as Missouri, Oregon and Nebraska, for example, recklessly causing injury to another constitutes assault in the third degree – in other words, you didn’t take prudent care to not cause injury or you did something that could reasonably lead to injury, even if that’s not what you intended. Missouri and Nebraska consider simply threatening another individual to be third-degree assault if that person reasonably feared harm -- actual physical contact isn't required.
Some states include nonviolent acts in their definition of third-degree assault. For example, Missouri’s statutes cite any physical contact committed with the knowledge that the other person doesn’t welcome it or finds it off-putting. So, if you hug someone who doesn’t want to be that close to you, you may have committed assault in the third degree, depending on your state’s rules. This may particularly be the case if she feels you’re sexually harassing her rather than just being exuberant about your feelings.
Use of Weapons
If an incident involves the use of a weapon – even if it’s not a recognized deadly weapon such as a firearm – it might qualify as third-degree assault. In Washington, for example, use of items that are “likely to produce bodily harm,” can range from a baseball bat to a butter knife, depending on what you do with these things. But having a weapon on you isn’t a requirement of the charge – it’s third-degree assault if you use a weapon, but it could also be third-degree assault if you don’t use one, but merely have it in your possession and the other person knows you have a weapon and is fearful of being harmed.
In some cases, the identity of the other person involved in an altercation matters. In Missouri, resisting arrest by a law enforcement officer is a form of third-degree assault, as is conflict with a school bus driver, public transit employee, health care provider, firefighter or certain employees of the court. Oregon law also singles out public transportation employees if they’re operating a vehicle, as well as paramedics and EMTs.
Charges and Penalties
A third-degree crime is typically lower on the seriousness scale than a first- or second-degree crime, so third-degree assault is often the least serious assault charge you can face. In Missouri, it’s a Class A or Class C misdemeanor depending on the exact nature of the crime and who the victim was. In New York, it’s a Class A misdemeanor, but in Oregon and Washington, it’s a Class C felony. Classes work the same way degrees do, with Class A being the most serious. Felonies and misdemeanors are defined by their terms for incarceration – felonies are typically served in state prisons whereas misdemeanors are served in county jails, and terms for misdemeanors usually cap out at a year.
- Missouri General Assembly: Missouri Revised Statutes, Assault in the Third Degree
- Washington State Legislature: Revised Code of Washington, Assault in the Third Degree
- Shalley and Murray: Misdemeanor Assault in the Third Degree New York
- Nebraska Legislature: Nebraska Revised Statute 28-310
- Oregon AFSCME Corrections: Assault and Related Offenses
- Nolo: Felonies, Misdemeanors and Infractions – Classifying Crimes
- Cornell University Law School, Legal Information Institute: Assault
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