Simple Assault in D.C.

“Assault” is defined generally as the threat or use of force on another person that causes that person to have reasonable apprehension of imminent harmful or offensive contact.  Assault can be a civil wrong (or “tort”).  It can also be a crime.

What is simple assault?

There are two forms of misdemeanor (or “simple”) assault in Washington, D.C.:  (1) attempted-battery assault and (2) intent-to-frighten assault.

In order to prove attempted-battery assault, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant used force or violence either to injure someone or to try to injure someone.  The prosecution must also prove that the defendant intended to use force or violence against that other person. In other words, the defendant’s actions must have been intentional, not a mistake or accident.  Finally, the prosecution must prove that at the time of the attempted battery, the defendant had the “apparent ability” to injure the person.

Similarly, there are three elements to the criminal offense of intent-to-frighten assault.  First, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed a threatening act that reasonably would create in another person a fear of immediate injury.  Second, the government prove that the defendant intended either to cause injury or to create fear in the other person.  Finally, the government must prove that at the time of the alleged assault, the defendant had the apparent ability to injure the other person.

“Injury” is defined as any physical injury, however slight, and includes an “offensive touching.”  The penalty for either form of this type of assault is $1,000 and/or imprisonment of up to 180 days.  D.C. Code §22-404.

Simple assault in D.C. has traditionally been viewed as a “general intent” offense.  According to this approach, it is enough that the defendant intended to perform the action(s) (swinging his arm,  for example) that constituted the offense.  In recent years, however, the D.C. Court of Appeals has suggested that it might be moving toward a definition of intent that is more consistent with the Model Penal Code.  In that case, the government would need to prove some type of evil intent — or malice — on the part of the defendant.   In Williams v. United States, for example, 887 A.2d 1000 (D.C. 2005), the Court held that the government needed to prove more than that the defendant had thrown the shoe.  It also needed to prove that the defendant had aimed his throw at the complainant.  Similarly, in Buchanan v. United States, 32 A.3d 990 (D.C. 2011), the Court rejected the government’s argument that an assault conviction could be sustained “so long as [defendant] intended the act of flailing his arms, even if he did not mean to strike the officer.”  

What are my possible defenses?

Self-defense, defense of others, and defense of property are all valid defenses to assault.  For example, a person is entitled to use a reasonable amount of force in self-defense if (1) the person actually believes that he or she is in immediate danger of bodily harm and (2) he or she has reasonable grounds for that belief.

What will happen at my initial court appearance? 

A criminal case in the District will typically involve at least three court hearings:  arraignment, initial status hearing, and trial.   The first hearing is the arraignment.  The purpose of the arraignment is for the defendant to hear the charges and to enter a plea. The court will also advise the defendant of the right to counsel, and the government will turn over initial “discovery,” including paperwork related to the charges. 

Initial arraignments are held in Room C10 of D.C. Superior Court, located at 500 Indiana Avenue, NW.  C10 is on the lower level of the court building. “Citation arraignments” begin at 10:00 am.  Arraignments for people who have been detained pending the hearing begin at 1:00 pm. 

An initial status hearing is typically scheduled three or four weeks from the arraignment.  This period of time gives the defendant’s lawyer an opportunity to discuss the case with the assigned prosecutor from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.  The parties will then decide either to schedule a trial date or to enter into some type of non-trial disposition at the third court date.  

Will I go to jail?

The maximum sentence for simple assault in D.C. is a maximum period of incarceration of 180 days and/or a fine of up to $1,000.  That said, it would be unlikely for someone who does not have an extensive criminal record to receive anywhere close to that sentence.  First-time offenders (i.e., people who have never been convicted of a crime before) will often be offered some type of “pre-trial diversion program.”

According to a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA), for example, the defendant agrees to perform community service in exchange for the government’s agreement to dismiss the charges upon successful completion.  More typical in a simple assault case is a Deferred Sentencing Agreement (DSA).  According to this voluntary agreement between the government and defendant, the defendant agrees to waive his/her right to trial and to plead guilty to the charged offense.  However, instead of proceeding to sentencing, the government provides the defendant with an agreed period of time (typically four months to a year) to complete an agreed upon set of conditions, usually to include community service.   If the defendant completes these conditions successfully, the court allows him/her to withdraw the guilty plea, and the government will dismiss the charges.  This means that the defendant does not end up with a conviction on his/her record.  If, however, the defendant fails to abide by his/her end of the agreement, the court will enter the guilty plea into the record and sentence him/her accordingly.

Do I need a lawyer?

Yes.  Although you have the right to defend yourself, the court will actively discourage you from doing so.  This is because of the enormous stakes and complexity involved in a criminal case. If you cannot afford a lawyer, the court will appoint one to represent you. 

If you have been charged with assault in D.C. and are looking for an attorney with experience dealing with this type of case in D.C. Superior Court, please contact Jamison Koehler at 202-549-2374 or jkoehler@koehlerlaw.net.   Mr. Koehler promises to try to resolve the matter as quickly and as discreetly as possible. First-time offenders should be eligible for some type of diversion program.

Although your lawyer will be given a copy of the full police report and other pieces of “discovery” at your initial court appearance, you can obtain a copy of an abbreviated police report — the PD-251 — in advance of that hearing by contacting the Metropolitan Police Department.  Instructions on obtaining a copy of your PD-251 are provided here.