In California, victims of domestic violence can go to civil court and request a restraining order. A restraining order directs an abuser to stop harming the victim and to stay away from the victim's home and workplace. Even though it's a civil order, violating the order can result in criminal penalties, like jail time and fines.
A person can get a domestic violence restraining order if they've been the victim of domestic abuse, stalking, or sexual assault committed by an intimate partner, family member, or close relative.
Domestic abuse. Domestic abuse includes any actual or threatened physical abuse, as well as verbal, emotional, or psychological abuse, committed by an individual with this special relationship. A victim does not need to suffer physical injuries or assault to be considered abused.
Relationship between abuser and victim. A victim doesn't need to be currently living with or married to the abuser to seek help—any of the following close relationships fall under California's definition of domestic violence:
A victim (called the "protected person" in court papers) must file a Request for Domestic Violence Restraining Order asking the court for protection from their alleged abuser (who is referred to as the "restrained person" in court papers). The victim can file these documents for free at a courthouse in the county where the abuser lives or where the domestic violence happened. In the request, the victim will need to describe the acts of abuse and when they occurred (if possible). A victim doesn't need a lawyer to get a domestic violence restraining order, but they certainly can get one, if they so choose.
Victims who find themselves in an emergency situation when courts are closed can contact the police to request help in getting a restraining order. Law enforcement officers may call and ask a judge to issue an emergency protective order (EPO) right away. The officer must have reasonable grounds to believe the victim faces immediate danger of further domestic violence by the abuser. The EPO only lasts five business days or seven calendar days. During that time, the victim may file a request for longer protection in a domestic violence restraining order (below).
The terms of the short-lived EPO can include ordering the offender not to have contact with the victim, removing the abuser from the home, awarding the victim temporary custody of shared children, and prohibiting the abuser from possessing firearms.
When filing the request for a restraining order, the victim may ask for an immediate, temporary order (TRO) if they need protection before the hearing can be held. In cases where the victims fear imminent danger, the judge may grant a TRO without a hearing and without the abuser being notified.
Once the abuser receives and knows of the TRO, a violation can mean criminal charges. Typically a law enforcement officer or process server (upon request) will deliver the papers to the abuser, after which the court will hold a full hearing. This TRO (like the EPO) can require the offender to leave the home and not have any contact with the victim. The TRO remains in effect until the court dismisses the case or holds a full hearing, which typically takes place within 20 to 25 days.
After a full hearing where both parties have the opportunity to tell their sides of the story, the judge may issue a "restraining order after hearing." This more permanent restraining order (RO) can last up to five years. Furthermore, the victim has the option to request a five-year extension or make it permanent. The terms available for an RO after hearing can include:
Important! The order only applies to acts by the restrained person (the alleged abuser). The order remains in effect even if the victim invites or consents to communications with the restrained person. If the restrained person communicates with the victim or responds to the victim's invitation to talk or meet, it's still a violation of the order.
If you receive a notice that an EPO or TRO was issued against you, take it seriously. Despite being temporary, a violation of their terms can mean jail time and a criminal conviction. You have the option to hire an attorney to represent you.
Read through the order and all of its terms. If the order specifies no contact or communication by any means, this prohibition generally includes trying to communicate through a third party (meaning you can't ask a friend or family member to pass along a message to the victim). You can also violate the order by accepting the victim's invitation to meet or talk. Remember, the order only applies to you, not the alleged victim.
You'll want to note the date and time for the RO hearing. This hearing usually occurs within three weeks of the original filing. Alleged abusers aren't required to attend this hearing, but judges can (and likely will) grant a domestic violence RO when they don't. At the hearing, you or your attorney can present evidence and testimony to dispute the victim's allegations.
If the judge grants the victim's request for an RO, the order will state how long it lasts. If no date is written, the RO ends three years after the date of the hearing.
Violating certain provisions of a domestic violence restraining order (EPO, TRO, or RO) can result in a criminal conviction that carries potential jail time.
Violating any of these domestic violence restraining orders constitutes a misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. If the victim suffers a physical injury, the abuser can face a 30-day minimum jail sentence. Repeat violations subject the offender to a felony charge. The abuser faces up to three years in prison and a $10,000 fine for a felony charge.
The court may hold an offender in contempt for violating a domestic violence restraining order, which can mean jail time, fines, and community service.
Other acts of further violence, such as domestic battery, stalking, or false imprisonment, can result in additional criminal charges and penalties.
Abusers who have a domestic violence restraining order issued against them cannot possess or buy a new gun. Offenders must relinquish their guns. Violators of the firearms restrictions face up to a year of incarceration and a $1,000 fine. They can also be found guilty of contempt. Federal bans may also apply.
If you received notice of a domestic violence restraining order issued against you, contact an attorney who works in family law or criminal defense. For criminal charges stemming from a violation, speak to a local criminal defense lawyer. An experienced attorney can review the circumstances of your case and discuss possible defenses with you.
If you're a victim seeking assistance in filing for a domestic violence restraining order, contact a lawyer who specializes in family law or a victim's advocate. You can also check out Nolo's Resources for Victims of Crime.
The California Judiciary provides free forms and instructions online for requesting and responding to domestic violence restraining orders.
(Cal. Fam. Code §§ 6203, 6211, 6222, 6250 to 6252, 6256, 6302, 6304, 6320, 6321, 6324, 6325, 6341 to 6346, 6389; Cal. Penal Code §§ 166, 273.6, 29825 (2021).)