This article has been written by Naveen Talawar, a law student at Karnataka State Law University’s law school. The article deals in detail with an overview of fourth-degree assault under US law, degrees of assault, whether the fourth-degree assault is considered a felony or misdemeanor, and defenses for fourth-degree assault along with a state-wise description of the fourth-degree assault.

It has been published by Rachit Garg.


Most people assume that they cannot be charged with the serious crime of assault as there was no physical harm done. However, any unwanted or offensive physical contact can result in an assault charge. Charges of assault can range greatly in situation and severity. Being accused of assault can be disconcerting, distressing, and transformative. In the United States of America, someone convicted of assault may spend time in jail or prison, pay high fines, lose their current job, or have trouble finding work in the future. Fourth degree assault includes physically attacking someone, causing demonstrable bodily harm, or purposefully throwing or transferring bodily fluids onto a specific group of people.

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Any physical pain or injury, illness, or impairment of a physical condition are all examples of bodily harm. It could be something as simple as a bruise or red mark. Fourth-degree assault is a crime that can be classified as either a gross misdemeanor or a felony depending on the circumstances, the victim, and any prior offenses the offender may have committed. Assault in the fourth degree is sometimes referred to as ‘simple assault’, or ‘assault’ in municipal jurisdictions. All of these labels merely indicate that the accusation is a gross misdemeanor that will be brought to justice in either a district or municipal court.

Main elements of assault

In general, assault is considered to have occurred when someone threatened another person with bodily harm. Three prerequisites must be satisfied for an offense to be eligible for prosecution. They are as follows:


An important component of assault is intent. According to tort law, the assailant must have either specific or general intent if they want to make the victim fearful of receiving harmful or offensive contact. Further, if a reasonable person would conclude that the act will result in the desired outcome, the intent element is satisfied. A defendant who puts a gun to a victim’s head has the necessary intent because it is almost certain that doing so will produce apprehension in the victim. The intention to harm or kill is irrelevant in every situation. In terms of criminal law, an assault that qualifies as an attempted battery must have a specific intent to commit battery. The intent to frighten will not suffice for this type of assault.

Reasonable apprehension

This is the main element that makes a wrongful act an assault. The victim must have a reasonable belief that the defendant’s actions will humiliate him. Apprehension is the fear that something bad or unpleasant will happen. It is the awareness that harm is about to take place. Therefore, it is considered assault if someone makes an attempt to instill fear of impending harm and is successful in doing so.

Apprehension of imminent harm 

An assault must involve an overt action. Even though words are insufficient on their own, if used in accordance with behavior that suggests the threat can be carried out, they may result in an assault. A threat alone is insufficient to constitute an assault; however, a threat coupled with a raised fist may be sufficient if it gives the victim a justifiable fear of harm. If the victim does not truly fear harm as a result of the act, there has not been an assault. There needs to be a legitimate fear of harm.

A direct threat or an impending threat must be the cause of the victim’s fear. Future threats would not be considered an assault offense. Someone may or may not feel anxious, depending on the situation. Fear can be induced more quickly and easily in a child’s mind than in an adult’s. Another scenario involves a gun being pointed at a sleeping victim by the assailant. The person is ignorant in this situation as well. This would not be considered an assault offense.

Degrees of assault 

The act of assaulting another individual can take many different forms, such as slapping them during an argument or throwing something at them. However, not all criminal assaults are handled the same way in the USA. Penalties for different degrees of assault can include jail time, probation, and fines. The least serious assault charge an individual can be charged with is fourth degree assault, but it still carries serious penalties. 

For a better understanding of the topic, let us first have a look at the four degrees of assault.

Assault in the first degree

An assault in the first degree occurs when someone intentionally causes great bodily harm or death to another person using a firearm or other deadly weapon. If a defendant exposes, administers, or spreads poison, HIV, or another toxic substance to a victim, they may also be charged with this crime.

Assault in the second degree

Assault in the second degree encompasses a wide range of actions, such as strangling someone else, harming an unborn child, and administering poison with the intent to harm. To be charged with second-degree assault, a defendant must act with the intent to assault and recklessly cause significant bodily harm. 

Assault in the third degree

A defendant who assaults a public servant, such as a police officer, bus driver, nurse, judicial employee, or firefighter, is generally charged with assault in the third degree. When a public official is assaulted while carrying out their official duties, such as operating a school bus or maintaining peace, it qualifies as assault in the third degree.

Assault in the fourth degree 

The least serious assault charge is assault in the fourth degree, as was already mentioned. Even though this charge is less than other charges, it is still complex. Any assaults that do not qualify as assaults in the first, second, or third degree are included in fourth degree assault. Charges of fourth degree assault are among the most frequent assault charges that a person may face. If a person accuses someone of domestic violence, they may also be charged with fourth degree assault.

What is fourth degree assault

The term ‘fourth degree assault’ has many different definitions, but it is generally used to describe situations in which someone uses force or makes offensive physical contact with another person without that person’s consent. To put it another way, a fourth-degree assault happens when someone tries to harm another person physically and, as a result, initiates contact that the victim deems offensive.

When someone is accused of assaulting a particular group of people, typically a police officer or paramedic, a fourth-degree assault charge is brought against them. Since it is generally charged in this manner, most people assume that this is a felony by default. However, unless there is proof of a specific level of harm, it is presumed that it is a gross misdemeanor. The least serious assault charge one can get is fourth-degree assault. It might, however, have serious repercussions. In a nutshell, a fourth-degree assault is any assault where there is demonstrable harm to a member of a protected class.

Fourth-degree assault in cases of domestic violence 

If a fourth-degree assault charge includes a domestic violence specification, the penalties are likely to be more severe. Domestic violence assault in the fourth degree is a gross misdemeanor, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 364 days and a $5,000 fine. A conviction for assault in the fourth degree resulting from domestic violence may also result in the loss of the right to own firearms. The accused may be barred from seeing their loved ones and even their home by a no-contact order and a domestic violence treatment program, both of which can be imposed by the court.

Threshold for arrest in a fourth-degree domestic violence assault

The majority of domestic violence assault charges are initiated by an arrest that occurs after a police officer is informed of the allegation. An arrest will be made if police are called to a scene and there is any indication that there has been unwanted touching. If the police have reason to believe there was an assault within the previous four hours, they are required by law to make the primary aggressor’s arrest. Even if no harm was done, allegations of fourth-degree domestic violence may still be made. They may also be made when victims disclose no injuries or only minor ones.

Further, a person who has been arrested on suspicion of assault involving domestic violence must also remain in custody without release on bail until they make an appearance before a judge or magistrate. That could take up to 24 to 48 hours, not including weekends or holidays.


The common defenses against domestic violence assault include the following

False accusation

This is the most simple defense. It is necessary to provide reasoning for the alleged victim’s false accusation that they were assaulted in order to support a defense of false accusation. The most frequent causes of this are impending divorce and failing romantic relationships. Many times, a person is able to present a timeline of events that proves the connection between the divorce or breakup and the erroneous accusation of domestic violence.


The claim of self-defense is another common defense against many fourth-degree assault charges. However, self-defense must be reasonable in terms of its intensity and scope. The defendant will have to prove that they had a reasonable belief that they were in danger and that their response to the situation was appropriate.

Accidental injury

The law requires that an assault be intentional. In other words, physical contact that was unintentional or incidental but nevertheless injured a party is not an assault. For a defendant to be found guilty of the crime of fourth-degree domestic violence assault, the state must show that the assault was planned in advance.

Persons belonging to a protected class

The list of those who are protected is exhaustive. An assault on a member of the community crime prevention group, a vulnerable adult, a reserve officer, a department of natural resources employee, a school official (such as a teacher, school administrator, or employee), a public employee with mandated responsibilities (such as a child protection worker, animal control officer, agricultural officer, etc.), a school official, a reserve officer, a utility or postal service employee, or a transit operator is regarded as a gross misdemeanor.

When a victim is a firefighter, a member of the medical field (such as a nurse, EMT, doctor, etc.), a correctional worker, a prosecuting attorney, a judge, a probation officer, or a staff member of a secure treatment facility, a felony has been committed. 

The majority of the time, members of these protected groups must be acting in the course of their jobs when they are assaulted, or the perpetrator must be aware that the victim belongs to one of these protected groups. A fourth-degree assault charge may be classified as a felony or a gross misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment or both, depending on several factors.

When fourth-degree assault amounts to a felony

Charges of felony fourth degree assault may result from any of the following alleged facts:

Assault on a law enforcement official and a probation officer or corrections staff member

If the assault results in bodily harm or involves the deliberate throwing or transferring of bodily fluids at or onto the officer, it is a felony-level offense. The same goes for assaults on prison or jail employees. In order to be charged with felony assault, the victim of the assault must be employed and on duty at the time of the attack.

Firefighters and emergency medical personnel

A person may be charged with a felony assault offense if they assault a doctor, nurse, firefighter, emergency medical technician, or another healthcare provider in a hospital emergency room and act in a manner that causes them bodily harm.

Multiple bias-motivated assaults

Any biased assaults that take place within five years of a prior biased assault are punishable by felony assault charges. Anyone who is accused of assaulting another person on the basis of that person’s race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, or disability is said to have committed a bias-motivated assault. The assault does not have to be physically harmful.

When fourth-degree assault amounts to a misdemeanor 

Similar to fourth degree assault felony charges, gross misdemeanor assault allegations usually involve accusations of assaulting a public employee or another class of person for whom the law specifies a more severe punishment. The following are some instances that could lead to an assault charge in the fourth degree, a gross misdemeanor:

Assault on a law enforcement officer

Any allegation of a physical assault on a police officer that results in physical harm.

Bias-motivated assault

An assault is a crime committed against a person that is motivated by that person’s race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, or disability. 

Assaults on school officials

Any assault committed on a teacher, administrator, or another employee of a public or private school and causing them bodily harm.

Assault on a public employee

The victim must be aware that they are a public employee and that they are performing their official duties. The assault must cause physical harm as well.

Assault of a vulnerable adult

The assault must result in physical harm. Further, the defendant had to be aware that the victim was a vulnerable adult.


The minimal amount of harm necessary in a fourth degree assault case typically necessitates that alleged offenders think about other defenses, unlike other assault crimes where the degree of bodily harm may be contested. Several defenses might be used, all of which depend on the circumstances of the case. Self-defense is one of the more popular forms of defense. The state has the burden of proving that a person was not acting in self-defense, which is a significant advantage of the self-defense claim. 

Other frequent defenses include but are not limited to the defense of property, consent, necessity, intoxication, and alibi. The defense of others is similar to self-defense, but a person is defending a relative or close friend. 

Threshold for a fourth-degree assault arrest

It takes very little to be accused of fourth degree assault. The only requirement is that the touch would be offensive to a normal person. It is not necessary to provide proof or evidence of the alleged victim’s harm. Even if there is only the most tenuous indication that an assault actually occurred, the police are required to make an arrest. This frequently occurs without the police finding any other evidence besides the alleged victim’s word or hearing the other side of the story. 

Many allegations of assault arise when couples are divorcing, fighting over child custody, or dealing with infidelity issues. In these situations, one party may be motivated to accuse the other of assault in order to gain an advantage or punish them for the perceived wrongdoing, even though no assault took place.

Assault in fourth-degree : state-wise description

Below is the state-wise description of fourth-degree assault in the US


Assault crimes in Washington are divided into four classes or degrees: 

  1. First degree, 
  2. Second degree, 
  3. Third degree, and 
  4. Fourth degree. 

These classes depend on the alleged perpetrator’s intent, the manner in which the assault was committed, and the consequences of the assault. According to Washington state law, a fourth degree assault is any attempted battery on another person that results in physical contact that a reasonable person would deem offensive. In essence, this prohibits any unwanted physical contact with another person.

According to RCW 9A.36.041, “a person is guilty of assault in the fourth degree if, under circumstances not amounting to assault in the first, second, or third degree, or custodial assault, he or she assaults another.” 

Charges of fourth-degree assault in Washington State

Charges of assault in the fourth degree are considered gross misdemeanors, which are more serious than simple misdemeanors. The State of Washington believes a fourth-degree assault charge displays a disregard for human life, so the penalties are significantly harsher than those for other misdemeanor crimes. A person accused of assault in the fourth degree faces a maximum sentence of 364 days in jail. He should also pay a significant fine of up to $5,000. He will also forfeit his firearms ownership privileges, and the police may issue a no-contact order forbidding him from interacting with the victim.

A Class C felony charge may, however, be brought in some circumstances for assault in the fourth degree. If a person has two or more prior convictions within the previous ten years for any of the following offenses, they may be charged as a Class C felony instead of a gross misdemeanor:

  1. Repeated acts of domestic violence,
  2. Harassment offenses,
  3. Third-degree assault,
  4. Second-degree assault,
  5. First-degree assault.


An individual charged with assault in Minnesota may experience severe repercussions, some of which may be harmful to their future. Depending on the severity of the crime, Minnesota has some of the harshest assault penalties in the country, with sentences ranging from a few months in jail and a small fine to up to 20 years in prison and fines up to $30,000. In Minnesota, assault in the fourth degree is usually charged as a gross misdemeanor, but in some circumstances, enhanced felony charges may be brought. In these situations, the nature of the alleged victim may have a significant impact on the potential charges an alleged offender will face.

Fourth-degree assault in Minnesota

When someone assaults a public employee while they are discharging their duties, it is classified as a gross misdemeanor or fourth degree assault. A conviction could result in a year in jail and a $3,000 fine. A fourth degree assault, however, may occasionally escalate to a felony offense. For instance, it is a felony rather than a gross misdemeanor when an attacker demonstrably injures someone or spits bodily fluids on them while they are performing their duty. A maximum fine of $6,000 and a maximum prison sentence of three years apply to this conviction.

When fourth-degree assault amounts to a misdemeanor and felony

According to Minnesota Statute 609.2231, it is a gross misdemeanor if the alleged offender:

  1. Assaults and causes a department of natural resources worker working on a forest fire demonstrable bodily harm.
  2. Assaults a school employee while they are performing their duties and causes demonstrable physical harm.
  3. Assaults and causes demonstrable bodily harm to a neighborhood patrolling member of a community crime prevention group.
  4. Assaults a vulnerable adult and causes physical harm to them.
  5. Assaults a reserve officer who is performing official government duties.

The same statute declares that fourth degree assault is a felony when an alleged offender:

  1. Physically assaults a peace officer if the assault causes demonstrable bodily harm. 
  2. Transfers feces or bodily fluids onto or at a peace officer intentionally. 
  3. Assaults and causes demonstrable bodily harm to a firefighter, emergency medical personnel, or a person providing healthcare services in a hospital. 
  4. Assaults a worker at a correctional facility, a prosecuting attorney, a judge, a probation officer, another qualified individual employed in supervising offenders, a worker at a secure treatment facility, or other people who provide care or treatment there and causes demonstrable bodily harm or intentionally transfers body fluids or feces onto them.


In Minnesota, a gross misdemeanor is punishable by up to a year in jail and/or a fine of up to $3,000. The majority of felony fourth degree assault offenses carry a maximum sentence of two years in prison and/or a maximum fine of $4,000. According to Minnesota Statute 609.2231(1), a fourth degree assault on a peace officer can result in a prison sentence of up to three years and/or a fine of up to $6,000.


In Missouri, a fourth degree assault is generally a misdemeanor. Fourth degree assault can be charged as either a Class A misdemeanor or a Class C misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances. According to R.S.Mo. 565.056, someone commits fourth degree assault if:

  1. The person attempts to cause or recklessly causes physical injury, physical pain, or illness to another person;
  2. The offender deliberately puts another person in fear of suffering immediate physical harm; 
  3. The person recklessly engages in behavior that substantially increases the risk of another person’s death or serious physical injury; 
  4. The person knowingly makes physical contact with a person with a disability or makes an attempt to make contact in a way that a normal person would find provocative or offensive; 
  5. The person intentionally makes physical contact with the other person knowing that they will find it offensive or provocative.


A conviction for a class A misdemeanor carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a maximum fine of $2,000. A class C misdemeanor conviction carries a maximum sentence of 15 days in jail and a maximum fine of $700.


In Kentucky, assault can be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances of the incident leading to the arrest.

Assault in the fourth degree in Kentucky is a misdemeanor offense that occurs when the alleged victim sustains only minor injuries as a result of the assault. A person can use a deadly weapon or other dangerous objects carelessly to inflict physical harm on another person and still be held accountable for this crime. In Kentucky, a maximum $500 fine and up to 12 months in jail apply. If the assault happened while the victim was experiencing a severe emotional disturbance, the maximum fine is $250, and the maximum jail time is 90 days.


In Alaska, a fourth-degree assault may result in imprisonment or a fine of up to $10,000 may be imposed by the court. 


The least serious assault charge in Oregon is fourth degree assault. Crimes of this nature are Class A misdemeanors. A year in prison and fines up to $6,250 are the possible penalties. Prosecutors may enhance the charge to a Class C felony if the defendant has a history of assault convictions or committed the crime in the presence of a child.

Importance of seeking legal advice in such matters

Allegations of assault are always taken very seriously. Without the presence of a skilled criminal attorney, a person should not speak to the police or provide any statements. Unrepresented defendants are frequently provoked into saying things that are then misinterpreted and used against them. It can be confusing and frightening in the moments following an assault in the fourth-degree arrest. However, it’s crucial that a person maintain their calmness and work with the authorities.

A person’s permanent criminal record is affected by an assault conviction. The court may take into account his prior conviction and impose a harsher sentence in the new case if he is later found guilty of another crime. Even a misdemeanor conviction for a violent crime can harm him when he applies for a job or rents a home or apartment. These are serious accusations, so the defendant shouldn’t attempt to defend himself without knowledgeable legal representation to advise and fight for him properly. Only someone familiar with the local criminal court system and cases involving fourth-degree assault will be able to assess the accused’s chances of a favorable outcome in court or at the negotiating table. An experienced attorney will take all of this into account, help the accused decide how to proceed with his case, and defend his rights. Therefore, it is crucial  for an accused to seek legal advice.


Assault in the fourth degree is usually charged as a gross misdemeanor, but in some cases, enhanced felony charges may be filed. In these types of cases, the type of alleged victim can play a significant role in determining the potential charges that an alleged offender will face. The seriousness of an assault charge is determined by the nature of the assault. However, whether classified as a misdemeanor or a felony, an assault is always considered a violent crime in the eyes of the law. In either case, a person convicted could face a lengthy prison sentence as well as steep fines.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are the examples of fourth-degree assault?

A person commits a fourth-degree assault offense if: 

  1. They recklessly or intentionally attempt to harm another person physically, causing them pain or illness.  
  2. They use a firearm to intentionally inflict physical harm on another person.
  3. They act carelessly in a way that puts another person at significant risk of death or severe physical injury.

How bad is fourth-degree assault?

Charges for assault in the fourth degree are considered gross misdemeanors. A conviction can have life-changing penalties and repercussions.

How long will the charges of fourth-degree assault stay on record?

A fourth-degree assault conviction that is not domestic violence may be vacated three years after the case and probation are concluded (i.e., before the three-year clock begins, all financial obligations must be satisfied). If domestic violence is a factor in the fourth-degree (gross misdemeanor) assault charge, the waiting period is 5 years.


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