Domestic Violence Laws and Penalties

Learn how states define and penalize domestic violence crimes.

By , Attorney

Domestic violence refers to crimes committed by and against individuals who share a domestic or intimate relationship. These relationships are often current or former spouses, family members, or current or former dating or sexual partners. In addition to criminal penalties, incidents of domestic violence can serve as grounds for court-issued protective orders and firearm restrictions.

This article will review how domestic violence laws work, what relationships are generally protected, how states define and penalize domestic violence crimes, and what victims can do to protect themselves.

What Are Domestic Violence Laws?

Domestic violence laws aim to prevent, punish, and deter crimes of violence involving individuals in domestic or family relationships. In many states, these crimes include assault, battery, sexual assault, criminal threats, manslaughter, and similar violent offenses. A defendant who commits one of these crimes against a domestic partner or family member will usually face harsher penalties than if the act were committed against someone who didn't share this relationship.

On top of potentially harsher penalties, domestic violence laws often provide judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement with expanded options aimed at preventing further harm. For example, the law may authorize police in domestic violence cases to conduct warrantless arrests, impose a mandatory 24-hour jail hold, or summarily forfeit firearms. Prosecutors might be able to seek certain bail conditions, penalty enhancements, or no-contact orders. Judges may make findings of domestic violence that can affect pretrial release and sentencing orders. Often judges need to ensure victims' rights are protected as well.

What Is a Domestic Violence Crime?

Every state defines domestic violence crimes and protected relationships differently. Some states have created separate statutes that specifically apply to acts of violence committed among persons in domestic relationships, such as domestic assault or domestic battery. Other states treat domestic violence as an aggravating factor that triggers increased or enhanced penalties for the underlying violent act. A state might also refer to the terms family violence, family offense, or domestic abuse.

Below are some common definitions, but you'll need to check your state law for more specific information.

Acts of Domestic Violence

As discussed briefly above, acts of domestic violence go beyond assault and battery offenses. Many states include any act of criminal violence against a domestic partner or family member, including (among others) homicide, sex crimes, stalking, threats, strangulation, child and elder abuse, interference with 911 calls, coercion, intimidation, kidnapping, unlawful restraint, criminal mischief, and trespassing. When one of these crimes is committed by one intimate partner, domestic partner, or family member against another, the aggressor commits domestic violence.

Domestic, Family, or Intimate Relationships

People residing together will often fall under the definition of a domestic relationship. But sharing a home is not a requirement. In many states, the definition of protected relationships includes:

  • former and current spouses, dating partners, intimate partners, or engaged individuals
  • persons who have lived or are living together as a couple
  • persons who have a child in common, and
  • family members related by blood, marriage, or adoption.

Including former partners is important as domestic violence often doesn't end when a relationship ends.

For certain dating and intimate relationships, a judge might need to decide if the relationship meets the statutory definition. Often, the law will specify factors for the court to consider, such as length and type of relationship and frequency and type of interaction between the parties. Some states also include household members, roommates, co-habitants, and family relations such as in-laws and foster relationships.

What Are the Penalties for Domestic Violence Crimes?

Many states impose harsher penalties for crimes committed against protected individuals, whether that protected person is a police officer, school teacher, or a family member.

In domestic violence crimes, harsher penalties may come in the form of:

  • increased penalties (for instance, a felony rather than a misdemeanor)
  • mandatory minimum sentences
  • prohibitions or restrictions on probation, supervised release, or parole
  • mandatory counseling or anger management classes
  • mandatory no-contact or restraining orders, and
  • firearm restrictions.

Misdemeanor and Felony Penalties for Domestic Violence

The exact penalties for domestic violence will depend on the underlying act, the defendant's criminal history, and the circumstances of the offense. Domestic assault, for instance, might start as a misdemeanor but quickly escalate to a felony if the victim received serious injuries, the defendant brandished a weapon, or the defendant has prior assault convictions. Other violent crimes, such as kidnapping or murder, will always be felonies.

A person convicted of a misdemeanor usually faces up to a year in a local jail, while felony convictions can mean a year or more (and up to life) in state prison.

Enhanced Penalties and Additional Consequences for Domestic Violence Convictions

Many states also impose enhanced penalties for repeat offenses (especially those involving the same victim), domestic violence committed in the presence of a child, and domestic violence against a pregnant woman, child, or vulnerable adult. These crimes typically start as felonies and may impose mandatory jail sentences.

Having a domestic violence conviction on your record can also affect your right to possess a firearm. Some state laws require defendants to turn over or forfeit firearms upon a conviction.

Committing a domestic violence offense can also affect the defendant's immigration status. Federal law provides that an alien (someone who is not a U.S. citizen or national) who is convicted of a domestic violence offense may be deported. An alien who violates a domestic violence protective order is also deportable. (8 U.S.C. § 1227.)

Consult With a Lawyer

A conviction for a domestic violence offense can carry severe criminal penalties, as well as restrictions on firearm possession. Allegations of domestic violence can also result in a court-ordered protective order that affects your conduct and your rights as a parent. If you are accused of committing a domestic violence offense, consult a criminal defense attorney. If you are named as the respondent by a person seeking a protective order against you, consider consulting a family law attorney. A skilled attorney will serve as your advocate and seek a favorable resolution to the allegations against you.

What Can Domestic Violence Victims Do?

If you're the victim of a crime and in immediate danger, call 911. For those not currently experiencing an emergency, you can contact your local police department to report a crime or seek medical treatment for injuries. You might also want to contact a lawyer to advise you.

Finding Resources

Domestic violence victims may want to reach out to a shelter or an organization devoted to helping victims. The National Domestic Violence Hotline can assist you in locating local resources, and they are available online (thehotline.org), on the phone (1-800-799-SAFE), or by text (text "START" to 88788). Additional information and resources are available at Nolo's Resources for Victims of Crime.

Getting a Restraining Order or Protection Order

Domestic violence victims might also want to apply for a restraining order or protection order in civil court. Instead of waiting for the criminal case to get going, victims can typically apply to a court for free and get an emergency protection order within a day or so. A domestic violence restraining or protection order will prohibit the aggressor from contacting the victim or committing further acts of harm or abuse. If the parties live together, the order will direct the aggressor to move out. Violating this order can result in criminal penalties for the aggressor.

Whether or not you can get a domestic violence protective order, you may be able to obtain another kind of restraining order to seek protection from someone who poses a risk of danger. In some states, for example, an anti-harassment protection order or extreme risk protection order (or another type of "red flag" order aimed at disarming individuals at risk of gun violence) may be relevant to your situation.

Domestic Violence Laws by State

Choose your state from the list below to find information about your state's laws regarding domestic violence.

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