Rhode Island Domestic Violence Laws

Rhode Island punishes domestic violence—violent crimes committed between family and household members—by enhancing the punishment for the underlying crime. In other words, "domestic violence" is not a stand-alone crime. Offenses that qualify as underlying crimes include, but are not limited to, assault (including an attempt or threat of an assault), stalking (including cyberstalking), forcible sexual relations, and violating a protective order. Family and household members include spouses, former spouses, people related by blood or marriage, people who live together, people who have children together, and people who have dated one another recently.

(R.I. Gen. Laws § 12-29-2.)

If you are looking for information on assault crimes, see Simple Assault and Battery in Rhode Island and Felony Assault in Rhode Island.

Domestic Assaults

An officer must arrest a perpetrator of domestic violence anytime the officer has probable cause to believe the following has occurred between family or household members:

  • felony assault or any assault that resulted in bodily injury, even if the injury is not observable
  • any physical act intended to cause fear of bodily injury, or
  • any violation of a protective order.

Probable cause is merely a reasonable belief that a crime has occurred.

Usually, an officer has to have an arrest warrant or observe a crime being committed before the officer can make an arrest, unless the crime is a felony. However, in the case of domestic assaults, the officer can make an arrest without a warrant within 24 hours of the alleged crime occurring. After 24 hours, the officer must obtain an arrest warrant.

(R.I. Gen. Laws § 12-29-3.)

Protective Orders

A protective order, also called a restraining order, is an order made by a court after it finds that domestic abuse has occurred between family or household members. The order usually restricts one family member from coming near or talking to another family member, and is usually in place for three years, although it can be extended. Violating a protective order is a crime.

(R.I. Gen. Laws § § 8-8.1-1, 8-8.1-3, 15-15-1, 15-15-3.)

Obtaining a protective order

A victim of domestic abuse (also called the plaintiff) files for a protective order in district (criminal) court or, if there are children involved, in family court. The court must order a hearing within a reasonable time. The defendant is entitled to notice of the hearing and may attend (though emergency orders without the defendant's presence are possible, as explained below).

After a hearing, the court may issue a protective order that

  • prohibits the defendant from contacting or bothering the plaintiff
  • orders the defendant out of their shared home
  • awards the plaintiff custody of any minor children and orders the defendant to pay child support, and
  • orders the defendant to surrender any firearms.

(R.I. Gen. Laws § § 8-8.1-1, 8-8.1-3, 15-15-1, 15-15-3.)

Temporary order

In certain circumstances, a judge can grant a temporary protection order before holding a full hearing. The defendant does not receive notice and is not present when the judge issues the order. Known as "ex parte" orders, these are granted when there is a risk of immediate injury to the plaintiff or damage or loss that might occur before notice can be given and a hearing held. A temporary order is generally good for only 21 days and the case must be set for hearing within a reasonable time.

(R.I. Gen. Laws § § 8-8.1-4, 15-15-4.)

Arrest and Punishment

Defendants arrested for domestic violence, whether a crime against a family member or a violation of a protection order, are subject to special rules concerning release after arrest and punishment after conviction.

Violating a protective order

Violating a protective order is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. It is also contempt of court (disobeying a court order), punishable by jail time or a fine. (R.I. Gen. Laws § § 8-8.1-3, 15-15-3.)

Increased penalties for assault

For a second misdemeanor domestic violence conviction, the defendant must serve between ten days and one year in jail. Third or subsequent misdemeanor convictions will be considered felony convictions and are punishable by one to ten years in prison.

(R.I. Gen. Laws § § 11-5-2, 12-29-5.)

Release after arrest

A defendant who is arrested for a crime of domestic violence, including violation of a protective order, may not be released on bail or on personal recognizance until first appearing before the court. The court must also issue an order prohibiting the defendant from having contact with the victim.

(R.I. Gen. Laws § 12-29-4.)

Mandatory treatment and fine

For all domestic violence convictions, including violation of a protective order, the defendant must participate in a batterer's intervention program, at the defendant's expense, and pay a $125 special fine. (R.I. Gen. Laws §12-29-5.)

Getting Legal Advice and Representation

An allegation of or arrest for domestic violence can have very serious consequences. If you are served with an application for a protection order or charged with a crime that involves domestic violence, you should contact a Rhode Island criminal defense attorney immediately. An attorney will be able to tell you how your case is likely to be treated in court and help you navigate the criminal justice system to achieve the best outcome in your case.

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