Is a slap an assault? Maybe not.

There has been a lot of recent media attention on an altercation in which a 16-year-old girl slapped a Philadelphia police officer. Although the video of the incident has gone viral, the video itself does not appear to show the "slap" to the face allegedly delivered to the police officer by the female juvenile. Recently, the head of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police called for the female to be charged with assault and blasted the District Attorney for declining to bring charges despite the girl's admission that she did, indeed, slap the officer. Putting the politics of the issue aside, this incident illustrates some of the defenses to both Aggravated Assault on an officer and Simple Assault charges in Pennsylvania. 

Should you slap a police officer? Absolutely not. Is the encounter described by the paper an "assault" as defined by the Aggravated Assault and Simple Assault criminal statutes? Probably not. 

Let me preface this article with some advice: don't put your hands on a police officer. It will almost never work out well for you. More often than not, it will result in second degree felony Aggravated Assault charges. If the police are conducting an illegal search, or roughing you up, or arresting you for no reason, you are far better off grinning and bearing it and contacting a civil rights attorney afterwards. The immediate situation will not improve by fighting back (unless in the rare situation that your life is at risk) and you will face a complicated and serious legal situation after the incident. You will also likely end up in custody or the hospital, which will make it more difficult to obtain evidence of the illegality that you can use in court.  

With that said, let us turn to the question at hand. Is the head of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police correct that the District Attorney should bring "assault" charges against the 16 year old? If we are going by the legal definitions of Aggravated Assault and Simple Assault, then the District Attorney has probably made the correct decision in declining to bring charges. Barring something unusual about the slap, one open-handed slap which does not cause any injury is unlikely to qualify as any type of "assault" under Pennsylvania law.     

Pennsylvania Aggravated Assault Law

Under Pennsylvania law, an Aggravated Assault as a first degree felony requires that the defendant cause or attempt to cause serious bodily injury to the complainant. Serious bodily injury is "bodily injury which creates a substantial risk of death or which causes serious, permanent disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ." In order words, it's a stabbing, or something like a gunshot wound. At a minimum, it's probably a broken bone or a large number of stitches. Unless there is something really unusual about the slap, it is not going to cause serious bodily injury, and it should not lead to felony one Aggravated Assault charges.  

Misdemeanor Simple Assault

A misdemeanor Simple Assault requires that the defendant only cause bodily injury. Bodily injury is a much lower standard, but it is still probably more than a slap. Bodily injury requires "impairment of physical condition or substantial pain." Therefore, punching or kicking someone in the face or stomach where the person does not receive serious bodily injury but is put in substantial pain would count as a Simple Assault, but not an Aggravated Assault. 

An ordinary Simple Assault quickly becomes more serious when a police officer is the victim. That is because a Simple Assault on a police officer, for the most part, can be charged Aggravated Assault as a felony of the second degree. There are some differences between the statutes in that Simple Assault can be proven where the defendant acted only recklessly instead of knowingly and intentionally, but there is quite a bit of overlap. If you punch a police officer in the stomach or elbow him or her in the face and cause bruising, swelling, or lasting redness, that may very well be properly charged as Aggravated Assault as a second degree felony instead of merely a misdemeanor Simple Assault. 

The problem with charging assault in the circumstances referenced above is that a slap to the face from a 16-year-old female to an adult is unlikely to result in any kind of substantial pain or physical impairment. Certainly, depending on the slap, it could. This is especially true if the 16-year-old is particularly strong or much larger than the victim. But in most cases, one slap delivered with an open palm is going to result in some sort of minor physical discomfort and maybe a little bit of redness. A slap is more often thought of as a sign of disrespect than a genuine attempt to cause injury, and so it likely will not meet the standard of causing or attempting to cause bodily injury as required by the Simple Assault and F2 Aggravated Assault on law enforcement statutes. Obviously, each case is different, and criminal cases are heavily fact-based. But slapping someone is not automatically an assault under Pennsylvania law. 

a slap could be criminal Harassment

Although a slap may not always constitute an assault under the criminal statutes, there are other charges that could be brought. A slap does, most likely, qualify as harassment. A person commits the crime of harassment when, with intent to harass, annoy or alarm another, the person: strikes, shoves, kicks or otherwise subjects the other person to physical contact, or attempts or threatens to do the same. 

Likewise, the officer could bring a civil suit for the torts of assault and battery as those torts have different elements from the criminal statutes. It is also conceivable that the juvenile could have been charged with disorderly conduct. Of course, this analysis depends on the witnesses agreeing that it was a slap. In many cases, any contact with a police officer could be exaggerated when the report is created, which could trigger the Simple Assault and potentially Aggravated Assault statutes. 

My advice: Don't hit, slap, punch, kick, or run from a police officer. Instead of fighting back and getting yourself in trouble, the best remedy is to take legal action if the officer has violated your rights. At the same time, a slap, while it may be harassment or disorderly conduct, is not automatically a criminal assault under Pennsylvania law regardless of whether it involves a police officer or civilian victim. 


There are often defenses to criminal charges because criminal statutes are complicated. They have very specific definitions, and they are often interpreted in appellate court cases which explain those definitions. Many terms in criminal law do not have the same meaning as they do in general conversation. If you are facing criminal charges or charges for Aggravated Assault or Simple Assault, it is critical that you retain the services of our experienced criminal defense lawyers. We successfully handle Aggravated Assault and Simple Assault cases. Call 267-225-2545 now for a free 15-minute criminal defense strategy session.