Violation of a Restraining Order

Restraining order violations can carry serious repercussions, including arrest, jail holds, and a criminal conviction.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated November 30, 2022

Courts issue restraining orders in a variety of scenarios—from cases of domestic abuse and stalking to pretrial and sentencing orders for crimes of violence. This article will discuss how restraining orders work, common restraining order violations, and possible punishment for a violation.

What Is a Restraining Order?

A restraining order prohibits a defendant (sometimes called the respondent) from committing future acts of harm or from having any contact with a victim or protected party. Judges often issue restraining orders in the following situations:

  • when a person files a petition seeking protection from further acts of abuse, violence, harassment, or stalking by an abuser or offender
  • as a condition of bail or pretrial release to protect a victim from the defendant pending and during the criminal trial, or
  • as part of a criminal sentence to protect a victim and prevent the offender from further harming or contacting the victim.

Restraining orders carry legal consequences—including criminal penalties—for violations.

The names given for restraining orders can vary from one state to another. For example, some states refer to restraining orders issued in the context of domestic violence as protective orders or orders of protection. In a criminal case, the judge might refer to it as a no-contact or stay-away order.

What Is a Violation of a Restraining Order?

Restraining orders vary in their terms depending on the circumstances of the case. But, in most cases, the order will direct one party to stay away from and have no contact with the victim or protected person. This includes not committing any crimes against the protected person. The court might also impose orders directing a party to do something. Not obeying the terms of the order—whether it's to do or not do something—is a violation.

"No Contact" Violations

Typically, any contact with the protected party is a violation, which includes contact occurring in person, in writing, online, over the phone, electronically, or through a third party. Similarly, "stay away" orders generally prohibit going anywhere near the protected person or their home, work, or school. Even if the protected person or victim invites the contact or communication, responding is technically a violation.

Any contact or communication that constitutes a crime is also prohibited. Threats, harassment, stalking, and physical assault are examples of this type of violation.

Other Common Restraining Order Violations

Other common violations involve not following the terms of the order. For instance, in domestic abuse cases, the restraining order often directs one party to move out of a shared residence but to continue paying household bills and insurance. Refusing to leave or failing to pay bills would be a violation of the order. A court might also direct a party to attend anger management or substance abuse counseling. Many restraining orders prohibit the defendant from possessing any firearms. Failure to abide by the terms of the order constitutes a violation.

What Happens If You Violate a Restraining Order?

The restraining order should outline the possible penalties and repercussions of a violation, which often starts with an arrest and can end in a conviction (discussed in the next section).

Warrantless Arrest for Restraining Order Violations

A person who knowingly violates a restraining order may be arrested and charged with a crime. Many states' laws authorize law enforcement officers to arrest a person without a warrant if the officer reasonably believes that the person violated the order.

Minimum Jail Hold for Restraining Order Violations

In many states, police must bring the suspect (believed to have violated a restraining order) to jail rather than issuing a citation at the scene. The law might also require the suspect to be held in jail for a minimum amount of time (several hours or more) before being released.

If it appears that the suspect poses a danger to either the victim or the public or might not return to court, the law may prohibit the suspect's immediate release and require an appearance before a judge. Some states always require a court appearance prior to release for a suspected restraining order violation.

Law enforcement must usually notify the victim in advance of a suspect's bail hearing or release.

Setting Bail Amounts and Conditions for Restraining Order Violations

Many states have bail schedules that set the standard bail amount for the arrested crime. In the case of a restraining order violation, that amount could be $5,000, $10,000, or more. Even without a bail schedule, judges might order a high bail amount based on victim and public safety concerns. A suspected violation of a restraining order weighs heavily towards a safety threat.

Judges may also impose bail conditions aimed at protecting the victim and preventing further contact or harm. For instance, the judge might require the suspect to wear a GPS ankle monitor. Other conditions could include prohibiting the suspect from possessing a firearm or consuming alcohol or drugs. It's also possible the judge will order the suspect to surrender all firearms or pay a bond to the court that will be forfeited upon another restraining order violation.

Will You Go to Jail for Violating a Restraining Order?

Going to jail is a likely possibility for a restraining order violation, even if it's just for a few hours or days. The exact penalties for violating a restraining order often depend on the offender's history of past violations or crimes and, sometimes, the type of violation.

First Offense for Restraining Order Violation

Many states make it a misdemeanor for a first-time violation of a restraining order. A misdemeanor usually carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a fine. While many first-time misdemeanor convictions don't result in jail time, the situation can be different for restraining order violations. Some states impose mandatory minimum jail sentences of a few days, even for a first violation. In other states, it will be up to the judge to decide whether to send the defendant to jail.

Repeat Violations of a Restraining Order

Repeat violations of a restraining order (or orders) usually mean tougher misdemeanor penalties or felony charges. For either, the law may impose a minimum sentence to be served in jail or prison. Felony penalties vary by state, but an offender could be facing prison time of several years or more.

Many states will also impose these harsher penalties when an offender has prior convictions for other offenses, such as domestic assault, strangulation, harassment, or sexual assault.

Penalties Based on the Type of Restraining Order Violation

Some states impose different penalties based on the type of violation. For instance, a violation involving physical harm to a protected person might carry stiffer penalties than a violation for contacting the protected person. A prosecutor could also file separate criminal charges for any violation that is its own crime, such as stalking, battery, or criminal threats.

Restraining Order Violations Involving Weapons

Many states impose felony penalties if the violation of the restraining order involved a weapon. On top of potential prison time, the court might order the defendant to surrender any weapons or firearms while serving a sentence. Typically, state law will also prohibit the defendant from possessing or buying firearms, and a violation of this law is another crime.

A defendant could also face federal charges for any violation involving a weapon or for simply possessing a weapon. Federal law forbids firearm possession by anyone who is under a court restraining order that prohibits the person from stalking, harassing, or threatening an intimate partner or their child. A person who violates this federal law can face up to 15 years in federal prison and a fine. (18 U.S.C. §§ 922, 924 (2022).)

Consult an Attorney

Consult an attorney if you are accused of violating a restraining order. It's also a good idea to talk to an attorney if you're served with an order so you understand its terms and the possible consequences of a violation.

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