Why I am being charged with Aggravated Assault or Simple Assault when I was simply defending myself?
The decision on whether to file charges or not is often left to the discretion of the police officers investigating the assaultive conduct. In many instances, unless a case is clearly self-defense, the police will file Simple Assault or Aggravated Assault charges against some or all of the participants in the fight. At the scene, officers make initial credibility determinations as to which people or witnesses that the officers believe are being truthful. Officers may not believe that a person actually acted in self-defense, or the police may believe that too much force was used in the assault to legally assert self-defense, and thereby file charges. In other situations, if the officers are simply not sure whether or not self-defense was lawfully applied, many officers adopt an opinion that a jury or judge should hear all the pertinent evidence and then decide whether or not self-defense was appropriate under the circumstances.
Do I have to prove self-defense at trial, or does the district attorney have to prove that I didn't act in self-defense?
Self-defense, also called "justification" in Pennsylvania, is an affirmative defense. This means that a person asserting self-defense in an assault case must present some evidence in support of their claim at trial. If the judge feels that some evidence of self-defense was presented, then thethen the district attorney must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person did not act in self-defense. If the district attorney disproves that the person charged with Simple Assault or Aggravated Assault acted in self-defense, then the judge or jury will convict the person. However, if the district attorney fails to present sufficient evidence to disprove the self-defense claim, then the person charged with assault must be found not guilty.
Why was I charged with Aggravated Assault and not just Simple Assault?
Generally, the distinction between the charges is based upon the severity of the injury inflicted or the severity of the injury that was intended to be inflicted upon the victim. More specifically, a charge of Aggravated Assault generally requires that the assault suspect either caused or intended to cause a "serious bodily injury," and a charge of Simple Assault only requires evidence that the assault suspect either caused or intended to cause a "bodily injury." Pennsylvania law defines "bodily injury" as the impairment of physical condition or substantial pain. "Serious bodily injury" is bodily injury which creates a substantial risk of death or which causes serious, permanent disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ. Pennsylvania cases have also discussed what constitutes both a "bodily injury" and "serious bodily injury." Ultimately, what constitutes a bodily injury or serious bodily injury is determined by a jury.
How can I be charged with assault if the victim did not suffer a "bodily injury"?
Many people mistakenly believe that grading and severity of assault charges are dependent upon whether or not the victim was hurt. A person can be charged with assault based upon the person's intent to cause either a "bodily injury" or "serious bodily injury." In some cases, a person charged with assault threatens the victim and thereby verbally provides direct evidence of intent. If the threat to harm another is not followed by any action to actually inflict the harm, then the person may not be charged with an assault but would instead by charged with terroristic threats.In most assault cases, intent is proven by circumstantial evidence. For example, if a person swings a bat at another person's head, a district attorney would pursue a prosecution on an Aggravated Assault charge and would argue to the jury that the bat swinger had the intent to cause serious bodily injury by swinging a weapon at a vital part of the body.
I have never been in trouble before, so am I eligible to participate in a first-time offender program like ARD for my assault charges?
While some Pennsylvania laws or rules do exclude some people from being eligible for ARD consideration, the majority of eligibility decisions regarding ARD are made by the district attorney for the county in which the charges are filed. As a general rule, relatively minor misdemeanor offenses such as Possession of a Small Amount of Marijuana, Possession of Paraphernalia, Furnishing Alcohol to Minors, DUI, and some Theft cases are often eligible and approved for ARD if the ARD applicant is a first-time offender.
In some situations and in some counties, the district attorney will consider ARD applications for assault charges. A district attorney is more likely to consider an ARD application for a Simple Assault charge as it is a misdemeanor, but a person charged with Aggravated Assault is generally not going to receive favorable consideration for admission into the ARD program.
Why did the police never talk to me to get my side of the story in the assault investigation?
This question is routinely asked by people charged with Simple Assault or Aggravated Assault in Centre County and other counties in Pennsylvania. Many assault cases, both Simple Assault and Aggravated Assault, are often he said-he said type of cases, meaning that many assault cases are not recorded on video or were not entirely viewed by an uninvolved party. Most of the witnesses to a fight are often friends of one side or the other and thereby not neutral. While people expect that the police would speak with both sides and thereby conduct a very thorough investigation, it appears that many times the police make initial credibility determinations as to which side the officer tends to believe. The side that the police believe tends to become the victims, while the other side are considered to be the aggressors. In some cases, the victims were the initial instigators of the fight, but, since they lost the fight, they are not charged.
Additional resources provided by the author
For additional information about assault charges or other criminal offenses, please review the JD Law website or speak with an experienced Pennsylvania criminal defense lawyer like Jason S. Dunkle.