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What is Assault on a Public Official?

A basic principal of criminal law is that a crime consists of two “actions”, the mental and the physicali. If both of these “actions” are present, and proven beyond a reasonable doubt, you can be convicted of the crime. Assault on a police officer is no different; it requires the physical acts of assaulting someone who is considered a “public official” and the mental act of intending the physical act constituting assault paired with the knowledge that the assaulted individual was a public official that was performing their official dutiesii. The knowledge that the individual was a public official engaged in their duties can be implied from the context of the assault itself. California Penal Code §217.1 defines the crime of Assault on a Public Official. The Judicial Council of California Advisory Committee on Criminal Jury Instructions “CALCRIM” has issued model jury instructions for every crime in California, the jury instructions for Assault of a Public Official are provided in CALCRIM 900. CALCRIM 900 provides 6 elements the Prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt, in order to obtain a conviction of Assault on a Public Official:

  1. The nature of the act that Defendant performed is the type that would probably and directly result in force being applied to another personiii;
  2. The act that Defendant performed, was performed “willfully”;
  3. At the time the Defendant engaged in the willful act, they knew of facts that would cause a “reasonable person” to understand that their act would probably and directly result in force being applied to another person;
  4. When the Defendant willfully engaged in the act, with knowledge of the probable results of the act, the Defendant had the capacity to actually apply physical force to another personiv;
  5. When the Defendant willfully engaged in the act, with knowledge of the probable results of the act, the person assaulted was lawfully engaged in the performance of their official duties; and
  6. At the time Defendant willfully engaged in the act, with knowledge of the probable results of the act, the Defendant “knew or should have known” that the Victim was a “public official” who was engaged in the performance of their dutiesv.

The attorneys at Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer (“LACL”) have nearly four decades of combined experience in the exclusive practice of criminal defense. The practical effect of their years of experience is that LACL attorneys have an intimate knowledge of the elements of the crime, the most difficult elements for the Prosecutor to prove, and the various defenses available to their clients. This allows our attorneys to approach each case in the most effective manner based on their client’s needs, and develop a defense, which is tailored to their client. At Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer, we take pride in guiding our clients through the entire case against them; part of providing guidance to our clients includes informing them of every aspect of the charges against them. The remainder of this article will focus on: (1) the elements of “Assault on a Public Official”, (2) The penalties associated with variations of an “Assault on a Public Official” conviction, (3) the defenses your attorney can raise to defeat a the Prosecutor’s case against you; and (4) The multiple ways having an attorney from Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer can be beneficial to the outcome of your case.

What Do Each of the Elements of “Assault on a Public Official” Mean?

As mentioned above, in order to be convicted of violation California Penal Code §217.1 the Prosecution must prove every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. As such, a thorough understanding of each and every element is critical if you want to obtain the best outcome possible.

What Does “The nature of the act that Defendant performed is the type that would probably and directly result in force being applied to another person” Mean?

The first element the Prosecution must prove is that the physical act the Defendant engaged in is the type that would naturally, directly, and probably result in physical force being applied to the Victim. While this seems to be a common sense element, it is a vaguely defined and is susceptible to multiple interpretations. A skilled attorney will attempt to persuade the jury that the conduct the Defendant engaged in was not the type that would have the natural, direct, and probable result of causing physical force to be applied to the victim. Below are a few examples that should clarify the difference.

EXAMPLE 1vi:

Dan sees Victor walking down the street, and throws a bottle at him; it does not hit Victor. The act of throwing a bottle in someone’s direction would naturally, directly, and probably result in the application of physical force to Victor.

EXAMPLE 2:

Dan is skipping rocks on a lake in Tahoe. On one particular throw, the rock Dan threw hits a submerged rock, which he did not know about, and ricocheted. The rock then bounced back and hit Victor. The Prosecutor would argue that throwing rocks, in any context, is likely to cause physical force being applied to someone. The defense attorney would likely point out the act of skipping rocks does not usually result in physical force being applied to another person; it was only the presence of an unknown factor (the submerged rock) that caused the physical force to be applied to Victor.

Many of these elements overlap with each other. For the purposes of the example above, Dan’s conduct of skipping rocks is not the type of action that would normally result in the application of physical force to another person. As mentioned in our page on Assault, assault can be accomplished by extensions of a person’s body as well as objects that the person caused to be set in motion. As we will see below, unintentional actions cannot form the basis of an assault charge of any kindvii.

What Does it Mean to Act “Willfully”?

As noted in footnote “ii”, a crime can be either a “general intent crime”, or a “specific intent crime.” In a nutshell, this means an element of the crime is that a person either intended the act giving rise to the outcome, or the person intended the outcome; the distinction will limit the defense a Defendant can raise to defeat the charges against them. “Assault”, and therefore “Assault on a Public Official”, is a “general intent crime.” The term “willfully” is a common requirement for “general intent crimes.” To act “willfully” means that the Defendant intended to perform the act, which would naturally and probably result in the application of physical force to another person. It is immaterial what outcome the Defendant hoped for when they engaged in their conduct; it is not necessary that the Defendant sought to cause harm, break the law, or obtain any advantage whatsoever.

EXAMPLE 1:

Dan sees Victor walking down the street, and throws a bottle at him; it does not hit Victor. Dan intended to throw the bottle at Victor, Dan has acted “willfully” for the purposes of an “assault.”

EXAMPLE 2:

Dan works as a commercial roofer. One day, Dan faints as a result of heat stroke and drops the shingle he was holding at the time. The shingle falls from the roof, and crashes onto Victor’s head. While dropping a shingle off of a roof would naturally, probably, and directly cause physical force to be applied to another person, Dan did not drop the shingle of the roof “willfully.” The reason the shingle fell of the roof was because Dan fainted, not because he engaged in any act.

As you can see, criminal charges will not stick to a Defendant accused of Assault, or Assault on an Officer, unless the Defendant engaged in conduct. Remember however, that it is no defense to say the Defendant did not intend the outcome of their act that would be a defense for a “specific intent crime.” If the Defendant performed the underlying act intentionally, this element will have been satisfied. In addition to willingly performing an act that would result in the application of physical force to another person, the Defendant must also be aware of facts that would lead a reasonable person to believe their conduct would result in physical force being applied to another person.

What does “At the time the Defendant engaged in the willful act, they knew of facts that would cause a “reasonable person” to understand that their act would probably and directly result in force being applied to another person” Mean?

In an abstract sense, everybody understands that a person should not be convicted of a crime if they didn’t do anything “wrong.” This element seeks to insulate people who engage in conduct that would cause the application of physical force to another person in one context, but would not in other contexts. If the Defendant was not aware of information that would lead them to understand the likely consequences of their action, the law does not punish them.

EXAMPLE 1:

Dan goes to Universal City Walk with his slingshot in his back pocket. While there, Dan attempts to shoot cups of water off of tables at one of the many restaurants. Dan’s conduct will satisfy this element of the crime, since he is aware that he is at Universal City Walk, a location where many people are present. Further, he is shooting his slingshot at cups of water in a restaurant, which means people are, or will be, present. As such, he has knowledge of facts that would lead him to know that shooting a slingshot would naturally and probably result in the application of force to another person.

EXAMPLE 2:

Dan goes to an abandoned field in Tarzana with his slingshot. Dan sets up several cans and proceeds to shoot his slingshot at the cans. Unbeknownst to Dan, a group of hikers had gotten lost and were wandering in the vicinity when a rock from Dan’s slingshot flew by them, nearly hitting them. Dan will not be found to have the requisite knowledge to be found guilty of assault. Dan was in an abandoned field, it is unlikely that his conduct would naturally or likely result in the application of force to the hikers who were lost and wandering in the vicinity.

At this point, it is clear that the crime of Assault, and therefore Assault on a Public Official is designed to punish intentional conduct, with knowledge of the potential consequences of that conduct. The next element of this crime requires that someone is actually capable of applying force to another person.

What Does “the Defendant had the capacity to actually apply physical force to another person” mean?

This element seeks to protect individuals who perform an act that would result in the application of force to another person in some contexts, but would not in other contexts. This is different from the previous element, which requires that the Defendant knows of facts sufficient to inform him of the likely result of his conduct. This element focuses on the physical ability to cause physical force to be applied to another personviii.

EXAMPLE 1:

Dan takes his slingshot to Universal City Walk and hides behind a wall. Dan then shoots a rock from his slingshot high up into the air from behind the wall. Dan will be found to have satisfied this element because the rock Dan fired from behind the wall has the ability to hit to someone.

EXAMPLE 2:

Dan is camping in Tahoe, and sees Victor across the lake from his binoculars. Dan loads his slingshot with a rock, and fires it at Victor. Dan will not be found to have satisfied this element because the rock he fired could not possibly make it across the lake to Victor. However, if there was a boat within range of Dan’s slingshot, Dan will be found to have assaulted the occupants of the boat even though he was not shooting at them because there was the actual possibility of causing physical force to be applied to those occupants and Dan willfully shot the slingshot.

At this point, we have discussed all the elements of the crime known as “Assault.” If all of these elements are proven, the Defendant will be convicted of Assault. However, to be found guilty of Assault on a Public Official, the Prosecutor must prove two additional elements: (1) the victim of the assault was a “public official” in the lawful performance of their official duties, and (2) the Defendant knew or should have known that the victim was a “public official” in performance of their official duties.

Who is a “Public Official”?

In order to be convicted of an assault on a public official, the Prosecution must first prove that the Victim was a “public official” as defined by statute. California Penal Code §217.1(a) generally defines “public officials” as any member of the government, member of the judiciary, or a peace officer. California Penal Code §217.1 also extends to the “immediate family” of the “public officials” as well[ix] It is not sufficient for the Prosecution to prove that the victim was a “public official” however, they must also show that the underlying assault occurred with the intent of preventing the performance of the Public Official’s duties, or in retaliation for the Public Official performing their duties. This article will not discuss what constitutes a Public Official’s duties, as the duties associated with each person classified as a “public official” is dependent on what position they hold. The penalties you will face if you interfere with, or retaliate for, the performance of official duties depends on the underlying conduct, as well as the surrounding circumstances.

I Have Been Convicted of Assault on a Public Official, What Are the Penalties I Could Face?

As mentioned above, the surrounding circumstances, and the nature of your conduct will determine the penalties you could receive if you are convicted of interfering with, or retaliating for, the performance of official dutiesx.

If you are convicted of “Assault” on a public official for the purpose of preventing the performance of, or in retaliation for the performance of, the Victim’s official duties, you will be sentenced to a term of incarceration of up to one year in county jail.

If you are convicted of the “attempted murder” of a public official for the purpose of preventing the performance of, or in retaliation for the performance of, the Victim’s official duties, you will be sentenced to a period ranging from fifteen (15) years to life imprisonment in state prison.

Depending on the nature of the conduct you engaged in, you may receive a “strike” pursuant to California’s Three Strikes Law. If the Court determines that your conduct constitutes a “strike”, and it is your second “strike” you will face up to double the allowable sentencingxi. If it is your third “strike”, you will be sentenced to a period of twenty-five (25) years to life in state prison.

Having a skilled attorney representing you isn’t important just because it increases your chances of beating the case against you, skilled attorneys can also advocate for lesser sentences. While the mechanics of sentencing are beyond the scope of this article, your attorney can advocate for lesser sentences, alternate sentences, programs designed to help with underlying issues, and many other creative punishments in lieu of jail time. Further, your attorney can advocate that the presiding judge not determine that your offense constitutes a “strike.”

How Can an Attorney from Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer Help Me if I am Charged With Assault on a Public Official?

Having an attorney present the moment you are arrested is incredibly important. If you or a loved one has been arrested for Assault on a Public Official, contact Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer immediately. Our attorneys have a several decades of combined experience exclusively representing clients charged with a variety of crimes; including Assault on a Public Official. Having a LACL attorney in your corner from the beginning of the process, your arrest, will allow your attorney to challenge every aspect of the case against you. From the booking process, to interrogations and line-ups; every step of the process represents an opportunity for your LACL advocate to fight for your freedom. Additionally, it is common for people accused of a crime to forget critical facts of the underlying offense as a result of the immense pressure that is applied during the criminal process. Having an attorney by your side immediately after your arrest will allow you to tell them what happened while it is fresh in your mind. Armed with all the facts of the crime, their extensive knowledge of the law, and their plea-bargaining acumen, your attorney may convince the Prosecutor to dismiss the charges against you, or reduce the charges against you. In the event that this doesn’t work, your LACL attorney will vigorously defend you at your criminal trial, raising defenses to the Prosecutor’s case against you. These defenses include:

  1. Your conduct was not the type of conduct that would naturally and probably result in the application of physical force to another person;
  2. You did not act willfully, that is the act was the result of something beyond your control;
  3. You were not aware of facts which would have allowed you to determine the possibility of harm to another person;
  4. You couldn’t have actually caused physical contact with another person
  5. The Victim was not a “public official”;
  6. Your conduct was not for the purpose of preventing the “public official” from performing their official duties;
  7. Your conduct was not in retaliation for the public official’s performance of their official duties;
  8. Involuntary intoxication;
  9. Duress; many other defenses.

In the event that your LACL’s defense of your case does not result in an acquittal, your attorney will advocate your best interests to the judge, with the hope of ultimately obtaining a sentence does not involve any time in jail. In addition to all of these tangible benefits, your LACL attorney will be available to you day, and night, to explain the process and answer any questions you have.

If you have been arrested for Assault on a Public Official, contact Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer at 310-502-1314 for a FREE consultation. Our skilled staff will begin building a defense to your case immediately, and begin negotiations with the Prosecutor on your behalf.


i This is referred to as the “mens reas” and the “actus reas”; the mental act and the physical act.

ii The “mens reas”, or intent, can be further broken down into groups of crimes known as “general intent crimes” and “specific intent crimes”; the distinction has a bearing on which defenses are available to someone accused of the crime.

iii It is well established law that the application of force means a harmful or offensive touching. The most minimal touch can be considered the application of force if done in a hostile manner. For an assault charge, it does not matter if force was actually applied, or that force was actually intended.

iv These 4 elements constitute “assault”, which will be discussed here, as well as in our “Assault”.

v The Definition of people who are considered “public officials” for purposes of a §217.1 charge can be found in California Penal Code 217.1, California Penal Code 830.1, and California Penal Code 830.5

vi These examples are focusing on specific elements, that the Victim is not a “public official” in these examples should not detract from the point the example is attempting to make.

vii Recall above, the crime must have a “mens reas”, if the physical act was not accompanied but any intent there are not many criminal charges a Defendant can be convicted of.

viii In an abstract sense, both of these elements require the completion of the “actus reas” and the “mens reas.”

ix “Immediate Family” is defined as a step-child, step-sibling, sibling, step-parent, or parent.

x This section is intentionally omitting the word “assault” because the enhanced crime is premised on the intent behind the conduct, as thus punishes different conduct taken with that intent differently.

xi This means up to 2 years in county jail if the underlying offense is an assault, and 30 years to life if the underlying offense is attempted murder.

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