Federal Penalties for Domestic Violence Crimes

Persons who commit acts of domestic violence risk violating not only state and local laws but also federal statutes that prohibit domestic violence. The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA) criminalizes instances of domestic violence that involve interstate or foreign travel. Convictions for domestic violence under state laws also trigger federal bans against firearm possession.

For information about state domestic violence laws, see Domestic Violence Laws and Penalties

Who Is Protected Under VAWA?

VAWA applies to violence against both women and men, and protects a spouse, intimate partner, or dating partner. It prohibits a person who is traveling between states or to foreign countries from committing or attempting to commit a crime of violence against a protected person. For example,

  • A person who drives from South Carolina to Georgia, intending to physically harm his ex-wife and, once in Georgia, commits battery against his former spouse may be charged under VAWA for the battery.
  • A person who flies from New York to Paris, intending to murder her husband, may be charged under VAWA even if her attempt to commit murder is unsuccessful.
  • A father on a family road trip from Montgomery to New Orleans loses his temper and slaps his teenage daughter during an argument. Because the father did not undertake the interstate travel with the intent to batter his daughter, he is unlikely to be charged under VAWA.

The prohibition also applies to persons traveling to or from Indian reservations and to people within the U.S.’s maritime and territorial jurisdictions. For example, a woman may be charged under VAWA where, intending to physically attack her boyfriend, she leaves the Coushatta reservation and travels to his home in nearby Elton, Louisiana, where she carries out the attack.

Using Force, Fraud, Coercion, or Duress to Cause a Victim to Engage in Interstate Travel

VAWA also addresses the problem of perpetrators who, with the intent to commit a violent crime, cause a victim to undertake interstate or foreign travel. The law makes it criminal for a person to use force, fraud, coercion, or duress to cause a spouse, intimate partner, or dating partner to travel between states or to foreign countries where the person commits or attempts to commit a violent crime against the victim. For example, a woman may be charged under VAWA when, intending to physically attack her boyfriend, she tells him that she is home sick and needs his help, causing him to drive from Kansas to her home in Missouri. Once the boyfriend arrives at her home in Missouri, the woman attacks him. Under VAWA, she may be charged for using a fraudulent story to lure her boyfriend across state lines for the purpose of physically harming him.

Penalties For VAWA Violations

Penalties for violating the Violence Against Women Act range from five years to life in federal prison. A court may also impose a fine.

  • If the violation does not cause death, permanent disfigurement, a life-threatening injury, serious bodily injury, and does not involve a dangerous weapon: up to five years in prison.
  • If the violation results in serious bodily injury or involves the use of a dangerous weapon: up to ten years in prison
  • If the victim is permanently disfigured or sustains a life-threatening injury: up to twenty years in prison, and
  • If the victim dies: up to life in federal prison.

(18 U.S.C. § 2261)

Federal Firearms Law

Federal law prohibits persons convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence offense under state law from possessing, shipping, or transporting guns and ammunition. For example, a person found guilty of misdemeanor family violence battery under Georgia law can no longer possess a hunting rifle. Also, persons under a protective order that prohibits the harassing, stalking, or threatening of an intimate partner or child may not possess, ship, or transport firearms or ammunition. (18 U.S.C. § 922. See What kind of “domestic violence” conviction prevents you from having a gun?)

Consult with a Lawyer

Federal law contains serious penalties for persons who commit domestic violence offenses that involve interstate or foreign travel. Also, under federal law, a conviction for a domestic violence offense can affect one’s gun rights and immigration status. If you are charged with a domestic violence offense under federal law, or if you are concerned with how a federal domestic violence conviction may affect your rights, you should contact an attorney who is experienced in handling federal cases. An attorney who regularly practices in federal court, as opposed to a state court practitioner, will understand the very different laws and procedures at play in a federal courthouse. A lawyer will evaluate the case against you and advise you of your options. An attorney may negotiate a favorable resolution of your case, such as dismissal or reduction of the charges. If your case proceeds to trial, a lawyer will challenge the government’s case and zealously advocate for your acquittal.

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