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Felony Assault Crimes – When a Push, Shove, or Punch Becomes a Felony

20th November 2017

Many of Minnesota’s assault crimes vary by degree depending on what level of harm is caused to the person injured in the assault. The most basic, and less serious, level of assault in Minnesota is a misdemeanor assault. The most serious is a felony assault, punishable by up to 20 years imprisonment. In this post, we will hone in on the finer points of when a misdemeanor assault is transformed into a felony based on the level of harm caused, and when an assault is made more serious due to the use of a dangerous weapon. For a broad overview of assault crimes, see our assault crimes page explaining the differences between the five degrees of assault crimes in Minnesota. To see our results in defending our clients against assault prosecutions, see our assault crimes results page.

Under Minnesota statute, an assault is defined as (1) an act committed with intent to cause fear in another of immediate bodily harm or death; or (2) the intentional infliction or attempt to inflict bodily harm upon another. “Bodily harm” is defined as “physical pain or injury, illness, or any impairment of physical condition.” The courts of Minnesota have held that in order to show “bodily harm”, a prosecutor must only show that a victim experienced pain from being struck – it is not necessary to show visible injury in order to prove “bodily harm”. This means that a mere shove, push, hit, or slap can constitute bodily harm under the statute.

In order to charge a defendant with a felony assault, there need to be additional facts or circumstances warranting the enhancement to felony assault charges. The enhancement may be made based on the presence of many factors, including but not limited to, a more significant degree of harm caused or the use of a weapon in the commission of the offense. The most common enhancements include Third Degree Assault (an assault causing “substantial bodily harm”), Second Degree Assault (an assault with a “dangerous weapon”), and First Degree Assault (an assault causing “great bodily harm”).

Before discussing these concepts, it is first necessary to understand the concept of intent, or mental state, applicable to assault offenses in Minnesota. Generally, assault crimes are divided along two lines: (1) assault that causes fear; and (2) assault that causes physical harm. In the former category, a prosecutor must show that a defendant had the specific-intent to cause fear in the victim. In the case of assault-harm, a prosecutor need only show that a defendant had the general intent to cause a battery that resulted in harm to another. In assault-harm cases, a prosecutor does not need to show that a defendant had the specific-intent to cause harm. According to the Minnesota Supreme Court’s recent holding in State v. Dorn, all that is necessary to prove an assault-harm offense is the intentional application of force constituting a battery (not the intent to cause any specific kind or degree of harm). For more reading on the problems associated with this division in assault-fear and assault-harm offenses, see our in-depth article in Minnesota Bench & Bar.

Having laid the groundwork relative to the kind of intent necessary to commit an assault-harm offense, we can now turn to the degrees of harm that give rise to the felony charges when a person is injured from a push, shove, punch, or other physical conduct.

Third Degree Assault – Substantial Bodily Harm

The elements of felony Third Degree Assault are identical to misdemeanor Fifth Degree Assault with one important distinction: the extent of harm caused. Take the following examples. If a person pushes another in a bar, and the person pushed merely falls down and suffers some pain without injury, a defendant may be charged with misdemeanor Fifth Degree Assault. This is because the defendant intentionally pushed the victim and the victim suffered “bodily injury,” as is discussed above. If the push results in the victim hitting his face on the ground, and he thereby suffers a cut requiring stitches, the defendant may be charged with a felony, because the victim has suffered “substantial bodily harm” under Minnesota law.

By statute, substantial bodily harm is defined as “bodily injury which involves a temporary but substantial disfigurement, or which causes a temporary but substantial loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ, or which causes a fracture of any bodily member.” The courts have interpreted this language to include the following types of injuries:

  • Swelling and a cut requiring six stitches
  • A cut on the head requiring four staples
  • A victim’s temporary loss of consciousness
  • A broken nose and multiple abrasions
  • A 1.5 inch laceration requiring stitches
  • The loss of a tooth

These instances are by no means exhaustive of the types of injuries that constitute “substantial bodily harm” under the statute. Rather, they are offered here as examples of when a misdemeanor may be transformed into a felony based on the degree of harm suffered by a victim. As described above, this felony-level offense may be charged even when a defendant did not intend to cause the degree of harm suffered by the other person. The intent that needs to be proven is only the intent to engage in the conduct that caused the harm, that is, the intent to commit the push, shove, punch, or other physical conduct that causes harm.

A person convicted of Third Degree Assault faces a statutory maximum sentence of up to five years imprisonment, a $10,000 fine, or both. However, those terms constitute the statutory maximum punishment under the statute. The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines are what instruct a judge on what sentence to impose based on the conviction, criminal history, and other circumstances.

Second Degree Assault – Dangerous Weapon

While the primary focus of this post is on the enhancement of assault charges based on the degree of harm caused, we would be remiss if we did not touch briefly on a felony assault offense that is frequently charged for assaults involving a “dangerous weapon”. Second Degree Assault is a serious felony, and often involves the application of mandatory minimum sentences that are imposed because of the use of a designated weapon. These enhancements are discussed more fully below. For now, we begin with a brief look at what constitutes Second Degree Assault.

There are two Second Degree Assault offenses: (1) an assault involving a dangerous weapon; and (2) an assault involving a dangerous weapon where the victim sustains substantial bodily harm. Since both offenses include an element of “dangerous weapon,” it is useful to identify what is a dangerous weapon under the law.

The beginning point is with the statutory definition. According to Minnesota statute, “dangerous weapon” is defined as

[A]ny firearm, whether loaded or unloaded, or any device designed as a weapon and capable of producing death or great bodily harm, any combustible or flammable liquid or other device or instrumentality that, in the manner it is used or intended to be used, is calculated or likely to produce death or great bodily harm, or any fire that is used to produce death or great bodily harm.

Because the statute includes language that a dangerous weapon includes “other device or instrumentality that, in the manner it is used or intended to be used,” the definition is not limited to knives and guns. Under the case law, the following items have been construed to constitute dangerous weapons:

  • A baseball bat
  • Metal knuckles
  • A three-foot-long board
  • Gasoline
  • A folding chair
  • A bar stool
  • A pool cue
  • Hands or feet (for example, cowboy boots were construed to be a dangerous weapon where the defendant kicked the victim in the chest and head with his cowboy boots)

The above list is not all-inclusive. There are limitless objects that could be used in a manner likely to produce substantial bodily harm or death. The courts have stated that the definition of dangerous weapon must be expressed in flexible terms and be broad and inclusive. This would include any number of ordinary objects in a household.

A person convicted of Second Degree Assault faces a statutory maximum sentence of up to seven years imprisonment, a $14,000 fine, or both. As stated above, the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines will guide the appropriate sentence in a given case.

We needn’t spend much time on discussing the more serious of the Second Degree Assault crimes. The offense is defined as an assault combined with a “dangerous weapon” that causes “substantial bodily harm” – two concepts we have discussed already. The maximum sentence for this offense is up to 10 years imprisonment, a $20,000 fine, or both. Again, the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines will guide the appropriate sentence.

First Degree Assault – Great Bodily Harm

First Degree Assault is the most serious of the assault crimes chargeable in Minnesota. To prosecute, the government must have evidence that the victim suffered “great bodily harm” in the assault. By statute, great bodily harm means “bodily injury which creates a high probability of death, or which causes serious permanent disfigurement, or which causes a permanent or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ or other serious bodily harm.”

As you might guess, First Degree Assault cases involve very serious injuries. However, it is important to note that to be convicted of this offense, there does not need to be evidence presented that the injuries inflicted were life-threatening. Sufficient evidence has existed in cases where the victim was unconscious for one day and hospitalized for one week. Other cases have involved the infliction of significant scarring as the result of stabbing, even where there was no evidence that the wounds were life-threatening. In one Minnesota Supreme Court case, the court indicated that, great bodily harm might exist if one knocks someone out briefly (the court did not expressly make this holding, because they only had to decide whether temporary unconsciousness was sufficient to constitute substantial bodily harm).

A person convicted of First Degree Assault faces a statutory maximum sentence of up to 20 years imprisonment, a $30,000 fine, or both. And we’ll say it one last time: remember that the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines will guide the appropriate sentence in a given case.

Guns and Knives – Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

Minnesota, like many states, has mandatory minimum sentencing laws. In the context of felony assault crimes (and others), mandatory minimum sentences will apply any time a defendant brandishes, uses, displays, or threatens another with a dangerous weapon or firearm in the commission of the offense or while aiding or abetting another in the commission of the offense. Generally speaking, a defendant who so uses a dangerous weapon will face a mandatory minimum sentence of one year plus one day. A subsequent offense involving a dangerous weapon will result in a mandatory minimum sentence of not less than three years imprisonment nor more than the maximum sentence allowed by law.

A defendant who brandishes, uses, displays, or threatens another with a firearm during the commission of an assault faces a mandatory minimum sentence of not less than three years imprisonment nor more than the maximum sentence allowed by law for a first-time offense. A subsequent offense involving a firearm will result in a mandatory minimum sentence of not less than five years imprisonment nor more than the maximum sentence allowed by law.

Mandatory minimum sentences create significant difficulties for defendants in felony assault cases. While judges may circumvent the mandatory minimums, it is not always easy, and judges often deny motions by defendants to be sentenced without regard to the mandatory minimum sentencing statutes. This may result in lengthy prison sentences for those convicted.

Lundgren & Johnson’s Felony Assault Defense Lawyers

Minnesota’s felony assault statutes are no joke. A conviction for felony assault may have serious consequences and can lead to incarceration. A punch in a bar, even if justified, might lead to very serious assault charges. This is where we come in. Our attorneys have a wealth of experience in defending against serious felony assault prosecutions. We know this area of the law and are prepared to defend you. If you are in need of our services, do not hesitate to contact our office 24/7. At our firm, we fight hard for you.