California Penal Code 217.1 imposes serious penalties for the crime of assault on a public official.1
Whereas simple assault in California is a misdemeanor, behavior that meets the legal definition of assault on a public official can lead to felony penalties (just like other more serious California assault crimes such as assault with caustic chemicals).2
The legal definition of assault on a public official
The California offense of assault on a public official consists of the following “elements of the crime”:
- You committed an assault;
- The assault was committed against a “public official” or a member of a public official's immediate family; and
- You committed the assault either in retaliation for, or to prevent the performance of, the public official's official duties.3
An “assault” means an unlawful attempt to commit a violent injury on someone else, when you have the present ability to do so.4 You do not actually have to succeed in injuring the other person to be guilty of assault on a public official.
Example: Monica, a city council representative, votes to approve a controversial high-rise development project in a residential neighborhood.
Rachel, a long-time resident of that neighborhood, is enraged. At a public meeting, she approaches Monica with a bottle of pepper spray, intending to spray it in her face. But several other city council members subdue Rachel before she can do so.
Rachel is guilty of assault on a public official for attempting to injure Monica, even though she didn't actually injure her.
A “public official” is defined in Penal Code 217.1(a) PC as any of the following:
- The President or Vice President of the United States;
- The Governor of any U.S. state or territory;
- A federal, state or local justice, present or former judge or juror;
- A commissioner, referee or other subordinate judicial officer;
- The secretary or director of any executive agency (federal or state);
- A federal or state elected official;
- A mayor, city council member, county supervisor, sheriff, peace officer or municipal chief of police;
- A current or former prosecutor; or
- A current or former public defender.5
And the “immediate family” of any of these officials includes their spouses, children, stepchildren, siblings, step-siblings, parents or stepparents.6
Example: Ricky is facing felony charges for selling a controlled substance. He is frustrated with the representation he is getting from Tom, the public defender assigned to assist him.
One day, when Tom comes to the county jail for a conference with Ricky, Ricky throws a chair at him and punches him.
Ricky may face charges under California Penal Code 217.1(a) PC for assaulting Tom, because Tom is a public defender.
One of the most important facts about PC 217.1(a) assault on a public official is that you are only guilty of this crime if you assaulted the official either to retaliate for, or to prevent the performance of, his/her official duties.7
In other words, if you happen to assault a public official—but the assault has nothing to do with his/her job—then you are not guilty of this crime. (You may, however, be guilty under California's regular assault or assault with a deadly weapon laws.)
Example: One night while drunk at a bar, Andrew gets into a fight with another bar patron. Andrew attacks the other man with a shot glass but is subdued by other patrons before he can inflict an injury on him.
It turns out that the other man is a local judge. But Andrew did not know this when he assaulted him, and the attack had nothing to do with the man's official duties. So Andrew is guilty of regular assault, not assault on a public official.
Penalties for assault on a public official
Penal Code 217.1(a) PC is a “wobbler” in California law. This means that the prosecutor has the option of charging it as either a misdemeanor or a felony.8
The penalties for misdemeanor assault on a public official include:
- Misdemeanor (summary) probation;
- Up to one (1) year in county jail; and/or
- A fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000).9
If you are charged with assaulting a public official as a felony, the potential penalties include:
- Felony (formal) probation;
- Sixteen (16) months, two (2) years or three (3) years served in county jail under California's realignment program; and/or
- A fine of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000).10
Legal defenses to PC 217.1(a) charges
If you or a loved one is charged with assault on a public official, one of the following common legal defenses may help you get these charges reduced or dismissed:
No present ability to inflict a violent injury
If you are involved in an altercation with a public official, you may use harsh words or gestures. You may even attempt to injure him/her. But if you did not have the “present ability” to actually injure him/her, you are not guilty of assault of any kind.
If the alleged assault victim was younger, larger, stronger, etc., than you, you may be able to use this legal defense to beat the charges—or arrange a charge reduction to a lesser offense like Penal Code 415 PC disturbing the peace.
No intent to retaliate or prevent the performance of public duties
As we discussed above, you are not guilty under California Penal Code 217.1(a) unless you assault a public official with the specific intent to either retaliate for or prevent his/her performance of his/her public duties.
But if you assault a public official for any other reason, you are only guilty of simple assault—which carries less severe penalties.
According to Beverly Hills criminal defense attorney David F. Poblete11:
“Police and prosecutors like to believe that their own kind can do no wrong. But, in fact, defendants are often charged with assault on a public official when they were actually trying to defend themselves or someone else against a violent, aggressive official. If you reasonably believed you were in danger of being injured or touched unlawfully, and you responded to that threat with reasonable force, you may be able to use self-defense as a legal defense against PC 217.1 charges.”
Call us for help…
For questions about the crime of Penal Code 217.1(a) PC assault on a public official, or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our California criminal defense attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
We have local criminal law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.
Also see our article on internal affairs investigations for police who are being investigated.
1 California Penal Code 217.1 PC – [Assault on] Public officials. (“(a) Except as provided in subdivision (b), every person who commits any assault upon the President or Vice President of the United States, the Governor of any state or territory, any justice, judge, or former judge of any local, state, or federal court of record, any commissioner, referee, or other subordinate judicial officer of any court of record, the secretary or director of any executive agency or department of the United States or any state or territory, or any other official of the United States or any state or territory holding elective office, any mayor, city council member, county supervisor, sheriff, district attorney, prosecutor or assistant prosecutor of any local, state, or federal prosecutor's office, a former prosecutor or assistant prosecutor of any local, state, or federal prosecutor's office, public defender or assistant public defender of any local, state, or federal public defender's office, a former public defender or assistant public defender of any local, state, or federal public defender's office, the chief of police of any municipal police department, any peace officer, any juror in any local, state, or federal court of record, or the immediate family of any of these officials, in retaliation for or to prevent the performance of the victim's official duties, shall be punished by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding one year or by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170. . . . (c) For the purposes of this section, the following words have the following meanings: (1) “Immediate family” means spouse, child, stepchild, brother, stepbrother, sister, stepsister, mother, stepmother, father, or stepfather. (2) “Peace officer” means any person specified in subdivision (a) of Section 830.1 or Section 830.5.”)
See also Penal Code 241 PC – Assault; punishment [compare to penalties for assault on public officials]. (“(a) An assault is punishable by a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding six months, or by both the fine and imprisonment.”)
See also Penal Code 244 PC - Assault with caustic chemicals.
3 Penal Code 217.1 PC – [Assault on] Public officials, endnote 1, above.
4 Penal Code 240 PC – Assault defined [applies to crime of assault on a public official]. (“An assault is an unlawful attempt, coupled with a present ability, to commit a violent injury on the person of another.”)
5 Penal Code 217.1 PC – [Assault on] Public officials, endnote 1, above.
See also Penal Code 672 PC – Offenses for which no fine prescribed [such as public official assault]; fine authorized in addition to imprisonment. (“Upon a conviction for any crime punishable by imprisonment in any jail or prison, in relation to which no fine is herein prescribed, the court may impose a fine on the offender not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000) in cases of misdemeanors or ten thousand dollars ($10,000) in cases of felonies, in addition to the imprisonment prescribed.”)
See also Penal Code 1170(h) PC.
11 Beverly Hills criminal defense attorney David F. Poblete is an energetic young attorney who has devoted his career to defending the civil rights of criminal defendants accused of high-stakes offenses like assault on a public official. Poblete regularly defends charged in the Superior Courts of Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego Counties.