Facing unjust fourth-degree assault charges in Seattle?
In Washington state, simple assault, or assault in the fourth degree, includes intentionally touching or hitting another person in what a reasonable person would consider harmful or offensive. It also includes attempting to inflict injury on another and intentionally putting another in apprehension of harm.
You can be charged with fourth-degree assault, for example, if you touch another person against their will, as long as a reasonable person would regard the touch as offensive or harmful. You could also be charged for attempting to hit someone, or for lunging at them in a threatening way. In other words, it takes only a little more than a threat to get charged with fourth-degree assault. It is one of the most common assault charges in Washington.
There need be no marks or injuries for charges to be filed. King County prosecutors frequently bring Assault 4 charges in cases where there are no injuries or bystander witnesses -- or even no evidence beyond the complaining witness's statement. In fact, prosecutors often bring fourth-degree assault charges even when the complaining witness doesn't want to press charges.
Fourth-degree assault is a gross misdemeanor in Washington. If the alleged perpetrator and victim are in a domestic relationship, the charge and penalties are more serious. Gross misdemeanors are punishable by up to 364 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $5,000.
It's far too easy to get charged with fourth-degree assault
The legal definition of fourth-degree assault is assaulting another "under circumstances not amounting to assault in the first, second or third degree, or custodial assault." To understand how that works, consider how Washington's assault laws are set up.
First-degree assault is the most serious charge, defined as an assault with a deadly weapon or force likely to produce great bodily harm or death, or an assault which causes great bodily harm.
Second-degree assault more or less involves an assault with a deadly weapon or one which intentionally or recklessly inflicts bodily harm.
Third-degree assault generally includes assaults that don't rise to the level of first- or second-degree assault, along with resisting arrest; causing bodily harm by criminal negligence; and assaults against particular people, such as peace officers, bus drivers, firefighters, doctors, healthcare workers, judges and court employees.
When a person is arrested for assault, it is the prosecutor's job to choose what degree to charge, and they generally charge the most serious degree supported by the facts. When an alleged assault doesn't meet the criteria for Assault 1, 2 or 3, the prosecutor can simply charge Assault 4.
A fourth-degree assault conviction can be based solely on the complaining witness's statement, if the judge or jury finds that statement more convincing than the defense's version of events. However, it is not uncommon for complaining witnesses to be mistaken or even dishonest.
You may have a defense to a fourth-degree assault charge. First of all, to be guilty of assault you must have had the intent to touch, strike or lunge at the person. If the prosecutor fails to allege intent, the charging instrument is considered constitutionally defective.
Second, you are not guilty of assault if the complaining witness consented, such as when threats are exchanged and a barroom brawl ensues. You are not guilty of assault if the unwanted touch you're accused of was accidental. And, you may not be guilty of assault if you were compelled to touch or strike the other person in self-defense, or in defense of others.
Because it's so easy to get charged with and potentially convicted of fourth-degree assault, it is crucial to discuss your case with an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Time gives your lawyer the opportunity to investigate the allegations, prepare a defense and negotiate with prosecutors, if doing so is in your best interest.