Domestic Violence Laws and Penalties

Domestic violence laws punish acts or threats of violence committed by family and household members, dating partners, and others currently or formerly involved in intimate relationships.

By , Contributing Author

Domestic violence is a violent act committed against a person in a domestic relationship whom the law protects from assault, such as a spouse, a relative, or a dating or sexual partner. Some states also classify threats to commit violent acts against protected persons as domestic violence. Federal laws also make criminal certain acts that involve violence committed among persons in intimate relationships. In addition to criminal penalties, incidents of domestic violence can serve as grounds for court-issued protective orders that affect contact with the victim and child custody.

Protected Persons

Domestic violence laws typically apply to victims who are residing with the aggressor at the time of the offense, such as spouses, children, and persons in intimate relationships. But the definition of protected parties is not limited to persons currently sharing a home with the aggressor. Because violence can occur following the end of a relationship, state domestic violence laws also apply to former spouses and persons no longer in an intimate or dating relationship with the offender.

In many jurisdictions, it is not necessary for the offender and the victim to ever have resided together in order for the crime to qualify as domestic violence. In Connecticut, for example, violence committed between persons who are parents of the same child constitutes domestic violence regardless of whether the parents have ever lived in the same home. Other states broadly define the class of persons protected by domestic violence laws to include persons related by blood, marriage, or adoption. For example, Arizona includes within its definition of domestic violence victims such as in-laws, stepparents and stepchildren, and persons related through adoption. (Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46b-38a; Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 13-3601.)

Prohibited Acts: Threats as Well as Physical Violence

Some states prohibit not only acts that involve physical violence but also threats of violence. Delaware, for example, includes within its definition of domestic violence instances where a defendant causes a victim to reasonably fear receiving a physical injury, even where no injury follows. In Delaware, defendants may be convicted under such circumstances even when they act without intending to cause such fear if they're found to have acted recklessly (with extreme disregard for the probable consequences of their acts). Delaware's definition of domestic violence also includes instances where a person conveys to the victim a threat to harm a third person, such as the victim's child.

Domestic Violence in the Presence of a Child

In some states, people may be charged with an additional offense (besides the underlying violent act) where a child witnesses the commission of the act. In Utah, for example, a defendant is guilty of child abuse where a child is present during the defendant's infliction of serious bodily injury against a person with whom the defendant cohabitates. (Del. Code tit. 10, § 1041; Utah Code § 76-5-109.1.)

Assaults in Domestic Settings: Punished for One Crime or Two?

Some states have created separate statutes that specifically apply to acts of violence committed among persons in domestic relationships, while other states treat domestic violence as an aggravating factor that triggers increased penalties for defendants convicted of the underlying violent act (for example, battery).

Two Convictions, Choice of Sentences

In Alabama, for instance, a person who commits the offense of aggravated stalking against his former wife also commits the offense of domestic violence in the first degree, a Class A felony punishable by up to 99 years or life in prison. A defendant convicted of both the underlying offense and the family violence offense can be sentenced for only one of the offenses.

One Conviction, Added Penalties

Other states do not create separate offenses for domestic violence crimes. Instead, they impose greater penalties for a violent offense when it is committed between persons in domestic relationships. In Florida, for example, a person who commits an offense that involves the intentional infliction of physical injury must serve a minimum of five days in the county jail if the victim is a family or household member. The same offense committed against a victim who is not a family or household member does not require mandatory jail time.

Court-Ordered Treatment Programs

In some states, convictions for violent offenses that involve domestic violence do not necessarily trigger increased prison sentences or fines. Instead, judges may be required to impose sentencing conditions specific to domestic violence convictions, in addition to the range of penalties authorized for the underlying violent offense. In Colorado, for example, a person who commits first-degree assault against a stranger is subject to the same potential prison sentence as a person who commits first-degree assault against his or her spouse. But defendants who commit the violent offense against their spouses (or any other person who falls within Colorado's definition of "intimate relationship") will be required to complete a domestic violence treatment program and undergo a treatment evaluation.

Immigration Consequences

Committing a domestic violence offense can also affect the defendant's immigration status. Federal law provides that an alien (someone who is not a United States 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.)

Domestic Violence Protective or Restraining Orders

Victims of domestic violence and those who fear becoming the victim of domestic violence may ask a judge for a protective order (sometimes referred to as restraining orders, relief from abuse orders, and similar names). Protective orders typically prohibit the respondent (that is, the person whom the victim seeks protection from) from contacting or being in close physical proximity to the petitioner (the person seeking the protective order). Orders may also require the respondent to vacate the family home and surrender certain shared property, such as vehicles. Some states, such as Alaska, also authorize courts to award temporary child custody and order financial support when granting protective orders.

Temporary or Emergency Protective Orders

Protective orders may also be issued in emergency situations. A judge may issue a protective order without the respondent being notified or present at the first hearing (called an ex parte hearing). Emergency protective orders are temporary, usually remaining in effect for only a matter of days. A temporary protective order can be converted to a long-term order after a judge conducts a hearing where the respondent is notified and given the opportunity to respond to the allegations in the petition.

Violating a Protective Order

Intentional violations of protective orders are punished as criminal acts by many states. This means that a violator who does not abide by a protective order's terms may face new criminal charges in addition to any charges resulting from the violence that motivated the victim to first seek the protective order. Conversely, for lack of evidence or a number of other reasons, an offender may not face charges for committing domestic violence but may face a charge for violating a protective order.

Other Kinds of Restraining Orders for Violence Victims

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 other type of "red flag" order aimed at disarming individuals at risk of gun violence) may be relevant to your situation.

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, or if you are named as the respondent by a person seeking a protective order against you, you should consult with an attorney skilled in handling such matters. A skilled attorney will serve as your advocate and seek a favorable resolution to the allegations against you.

Domestic Violence Laws by State

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