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Assault on a Public Official

Criminal law often makes special provisions for the protection of some categories of individuals, such as children, the elderly, or other groups that represent the most vulnerable in society. In some instances, certain individuals are protected because of the job that they perform. California Penal Code has a separate offense from simple assault that prohibits an assault on a public official. An assault on a public servant is often viewed as an assault on the government and the general public, which in turn can result in serious consequences. 

What is the legal definition of

Assault on a Public Official in California?

Penal Code 217.1(a) PC defines the crime of assault on a public official. Whereas simple assault, “PC 240” an attack towards an individual of the public, in California is a misdemeanor, PC 217.1(a) can lead to serious felony penalties. 

In California, an assault is an unlawful attempt to inflict force on another person, or to have the ability to cause injury to anyone. To be charged for assault, application of force does not have to be “skin-on-skin.” Assault and battery are often described as a singular crime, but in fact there are two different crimes. In California, “battery” is used to describe a physical attack on someone. Assault describes threatening conduct that does not necessarily amount to physical touching. 

How is simple assault defined in California?

An assault is an unlawful attempt to inflict force on another person or to have the ability to cause injury to anyone. Application of force does not have to be “skin-on-skin.” Assault and battery are two distinct crimes. 

For example

Force can be applied to another person by shooting a gun in the air or hurling a rock towards the victim. 

A defendant who throws several punches at someone’s face, but misses each time is probably guilty of assault 

Take note that the prosecution does not need to prove that the defendant planned or intended to hurt anyone in an assault case. 



  1. Force can be applied to another person by shooting a gun in the air or hurling a rock towards the victim. 
  2. Tom has been waiting for over 20 minutes to be served at the bar. After multiple attempts to order, the bartender yells at him to wait his turn. Tom loses his patience and jumps over the bar and tries to punch the bartender, but he misses each time. 

Take note that the prosecution does not need to prove that the defendant planned or intended to hurt anyone in an assault case. Under California law, you can be charged with PC 240 if there is evidence that you attempted to inflict physical harm or unwanted touching on someone else. 

What counts as a public official?

A public official is defined in PC 217.1(a) as any of the following: 

  1. The president or vice president of the United States 
  2. The governor of any state or territory 
  3. Any justice, judge, or former judge of any local, state, or federal court. 
  4. Any commissioner, referee, or other subordinate judicial officer of any court 
  5. The secretary, director, of any agency 
  6. A state or federal prosecutor’s office. 
  7. A current or former public defender, or an assistant public defender 
  8. A mayor, city council members, county supervisor, sheriff, or police
  9. A current or former prosecutor

This list also includes the immediate family of any of these officials, which includes their spouses, child, stepchild, brother, stepbrother, sister, stepsister, mother, stepmother, father, stepfather. 



  1. Mary is facing child abuse charges and is represented by a public defender. So far, Mary is not pleased with how her public defender is handling her case. During a meeting set up to discuss defense strategies, she becomes angry and physically attacks the public defender. Mary throws a chair in her direction, but misses. Due to the attack, Mary may face charges under California PC 217.1(a). 
  2. Jenny calls the police on her boyfriend, Mike, after getting into a physical altercation. He insists he only acted out of self-defense and has been unfairly detained. Out of anger, he tries to punch the officer’s face in a desperate attempt to run away, but fails. Although there was no touching or injury of any sort, Mike may still face assault on a law enforcement official under PC 217.1(a).  

Take note, that you can only be guilty of assault on a public official if you assaulted the officer to retaliate for, or to prevent the performance of his/her official duties. If you happen to assault any of the public officials mentioned above, but the assault had nothing to do with the public official’s job, then you are not guilty of PC 217.1(a). However, you may still be found guilty under PC 240, California’s simple assault law. 


Leslie is late for an appointment and gets into a parking dispute with another driver. She gets out of her car and demands that the other driver gives up the parking spot. The driver rolls down the window and insists that he spotted it first. Leslie is angered that the man will not budge and spits into the car aiming at his face.

It turns out that the man is a local prosecutor. However, Leslie will not face PC 217.1(a) charges because she did not know he was a public official, therefore she was not trying to stop the man from performing his duties. In any case, Leslie may still face simple assault charges. 

Penalties for assault with

A Deadly Weapon:

Assault on a public official is a “wobbler” offense that can be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor. The potential punishments will depend on the exact charge. A misdemeanor offense is punishable by up to one year in jail and/ or a fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000). If you are charged with a felony assault, the penalties could include 

  • felony probation
  • 16, 2, or three years served in county jail under California’s realignment program. and/or
  • A Fine of up to 10,000
  • You could also be ordered to complete community service, undergo counseling or addiction treatment if alcohol or drugs were involved, pay restitution, and or adhere to the limitations of probation. 

Collateral consequences:

Permanent criminal record

Loss of the right to own a firearm

Difficulties obtaining a job, housing, student financial aid, professional license, visa, permanent residency, or citizenship. 

Legal defenses to an assault on a public official charge

Assault on a Public Official Charge

You did not possess the ability to inflict force or violence

No present ability to inflict a violent injury.

 If you are involved in an altercation with a public official you may have used harsh words, but if you did not have the “present ability” to injure the public official then you are not guilty. Not having the present ability means that the alleged assault victim was younger, stronger, larger etc. and 

You did not have the intent to retaliate or prevent the performance of public duties. Only guilty of simple assault. 

Self defense: 

It  is lawful to use force or violence in self-defense in California. In a self defense case, the defendant does not have to necessarily show that the alleged victim was, in fact, threatening the defendant or show that they would have harmed the defendant given the chance. They only need to to show that the alleged victim was threatening, and that the force used was needed in order to stop it. It is legal for a person to use reasonable force to protect himself or others from the threat of immediate harm. Defendants are often charged with assault on a public official when in fact attempting to defend themselves or others against a violent public official. 

Defense of others 

You did not act willfully

You are the victim of a false accusation.

Depending on the facts of the cases you may benefit from a charge reduction or even a dismissal. Your lawyer may also challenge certain elements of the specific crime. Such as the attack not being perpetrated in retaliation or to prevent the official duties of a public official.