The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Miller, holding that the trial court properly found the defendant guilty of Aggravated Assault for the act of merely pointing a gun at the complainant. This is a poorly reasoned case which fails to follow the statutory language of the Aggravated Assault statute by allowing a conviction for Aggravated Assault even where the defendant did not actually do anything to try to cause serious bodily injury to the complainant.
The Facts of Miller
In Miller, the defendant became involved in a road range incident with the complainant. The complainant was driving home when he turned onto a street which was blocked by the defendant’s car. The defendant started yelling at the complainant, so the complainant pulled over and got out of his car. The defendant got out of his car, and the two began to argue. The defendant then went back to his car, retrieved a handgun, and pointed it at the complainant’s head with his finger on the trigger. He repeatedly stated things like “What’s your problem now, fucker? I got a gun. I’m going to kill you. I’m going to shoot you.” The complainant put his hands up defensively and said that was not necessary, and the defendant continued to threaten him and say that he should kill him.
At some point, one of the defendant’s friends came out of his house and began yelling at the defendant to put the gun away. He did, but then the two men argued some more. The defendant then started to go back to his car to get the gun again, but the complainant’s wife grabbed the gun and threw it. Police arrested the defendant, and he later yelled “I shoulda just fucking killed them. I shoulda just shot them.” He made a number of other similar statements which did not help his case.
The Criminal Charges
Prosecutors charged the defendant with Aggravated Assault, Simple Assault, Terroristic Threats, Recklessly Endangering Another Person, Disorderly Conduct, and Harassment. He proceeded by way of jury trial and was found guilty of all charges. The trial judge sentenced him to four to ten years’ incarceration in state prison, and the defendant appealed.
The Superior Court Appeal
On appeal, the defendant argued that the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction for Aggravated Assault. Specifically, Aggravated Assault requires either that a defendant cause or attempt to cause serious bodily injury to the complainant. Here, the defendant did not cause serious bodily injury to the complainant because he did not do anything other than point the gun, but the Court found that the conviction could be upheld because he attempted to cause serious bodily injury.
Can you be convicted of a aggravated assault just for pointing a gun at someone?
Sometimes, depending on the facts. Here, the Court upheld the conviction. The Superior Court reasoned that for aggravated assault purposes, an attempt can be found where the accused who possesses the required, specific intent acts in a manner which constitutes a substantial step towards perpetrating a serious bodily injury upon another. Intent ordinarily must be proven through circumstantial evidence and inferred from acts, conduct or attendant circumstances.
Here, the Court found that the jury was free to believe that the defendant meant what he repeatedly said to the complainant: that he intended to shoot him. The threat, in conjunction with the act of pointing the gun at the complainant’s head, was sufficient to sustain the conviction for Aggravated Assault. Further, the encounter was only defused because the neighbor came out and began yelling at the defendant to stop, thus suggesting that the defendant may have carried through with the threat had someone else not intervened. Therefore, the Court upheld the conviction.
Potential Defenses to Aggravated Assault Charges for Pointing a Gun
This really is a bad opinion – Aggravated Assault requires an actual attempt to cause serious bodily injury, and here, it does not appear that anything actually happened which prevented the defendant from causing that serious bodily injury if he wanted to do so. Where a defendant shoots at someone and misses or points a gun at someone who flees and escapes, it may make sense for a court to find that there was sufficient evidence of Aggravated Assault. But where the defendant points the gun at someone and has every opportunity to shoot but does not do so, there should not be a conviction for Aggravated Assault.
In general, Pennsylvania case law now seems to hold that pointing a gun at someone may be Aggravated Assault where there are some intervening circumstances which arguably lead to the defendant deciding not to carry through with the threat. However, where the defendant does nothing more than point the gun at a complainant and then voluntarily stops on his or her own, there is still case law that supports the idea that this type of action should only be a Simple Assault. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania courts often do not take the fact that Aggravated Assault is a first-degree felony seriously enough. This makes it extremely important to hire an experienced criminal defense lawyer if you are facing charges or under investigation for assault.
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