Massachusetts Domestic Violence Laws

An overview of Massachusetts' domestic violence crimes and penalites, including assault and battery on a family or household member and violating an abuse prevention order.

Crimes involving physical injury or fear of harm committed against a family or household member or someone with whom the offender is or was involved in a dating relationship constitute domestic violence.

In Massachusetts, domestic violence crimes can include assault, assault and battery, stalking, strangulation, and abuse prevention order violations (sometimes called a restraining order or 209A). Certain crimes carry harsher penalties when committed against a family or household member or in violation of a restraining order. In addition, the commonwealth imposes certain duties and obligations on police and judges designed to protect victims and prevent future harm.

This article will discuss Massachusetts' criminal penalties for domestic violence crimes.

How Massachusetts Defines Domestic Violence Crimes

Massachusetts law defines what constitutes domestic violence–what acts and by whom.

Domestic abuse offense. A domestic abuse offense includes acts such as physical harm, attempts to cause physical harm, inflicting fear of imminent serious physical harm, and involuntary sexual relations between family and household members. It's also a crime to violate a civil abuse prevention order.

Family or household members. Domestic violence involves a defendant's unlawful action against a victim who is a family or household member. These acts could involve hitting, kicking, hair pulling, threats of such acts, or other violence. The key is that the crime or threat is directed at someone who shares one of the following relationships with the offender:

  • current or former spouse
  • current or former co-resident
  • related by blood or marriage
  • parent of the same child, or
  • current or former substantive dating or engaged partner.

What Are the Penalties for Assault and Battery on a Family or Household Member?

The most common domestic violence offenses are "assault" and "assault and battery." A person commits the crime of assault by attempting to use physical force or demonstrating an intention to use physical force. Assault does not require the offender to come into physical contact with the victim. For example, trying to hit someone constitutes assault. A person is guilty of assault and battery when they commit an act that causes or is likely to cause physical harm. Kicking someone can result in an assault and battery conviction. Penalties depend on who the victim is, the level of harm caused, whether a weapon was involved, and whether a restraining order was in place. Let's review Massachusetts' various assault and assault and battery crimes.

Assault or Assault and Battery on a Family or Household Member

To be charged with assault or assault and battery on a family or household member, the victim and defendant must have one of the following relationships: share a child or be current or former spouses, substantive dating partners, or engaged partners. This definition is narrower than the one listed in the section above as it doesn't cover persons related by blood or marriage or co-residents. For these relationships, the penalties under the general assault statute would apply (see below).

A defendant who commits an assault or assault and battery on a family or household member faces a misdemeanor penalty of up to two and a half years of incarceration and a $5,000 fine. A second or subsequent offense can potentially land the offender in prison for five years.

Assault or Assault and Battery

If the relationship above doesn't pertain, the offender still faces a penalty of two and a half years of incarceration and a $5,000 fine. However, the prosecutor doesn't have the option to charge a repeat offense as a felony.

Assault and Battery: Serious Bodily Injury, Restraining Order Violation, or Dangerous Weapon

A person who commits an assault or an assault and battery and has a restraining or no-contact order against them or causes serious bodily injury faces a harsher punishment. The more severe penalties include up to two and a half years in jail or five years in prison, as well as a $5,000 fine.

An offender guilty of committing an assault and battery with a dangerous weapon faces up to ten years in prison or two and a half years in jail, in addition to a $5,000 fine. If the unlawful conduct results in serious bodily injury to the victim or the victim has a restraining order against the defendant, the potential penalties go as high as 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

(Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 209A, § 1; ch. 265, §§ 13A, 13M, 15A (2021); Comm. v. Burke, 457 N. E.2d 622 (Mass. 1983).)

What Are the Penalties for Violating an Abuse Prevention Order and Other Domestic Abuse Crimes?

Domestic violence crimes involve more than assault and battery offenses. Related unlawful actions include stalking, strangulation, and violating an abuse prevention order. When committed against a family or household member, police have special duties, all of which revolve around preventing further abuse to the victim and any involved children. The police also have requirements when handling the abuser. (See below regarding arrests, bail, and firearms.)

Violation of an Abuse Prevention Order or 209A

A victim of domestic abuse can seek an order prohibiting the abuser from contacting or harming them. Violating an abuse prevention order constitutes a criminal offense. Such an unlawful act carries up to two and a half years in jail and a $5,000 fine. If the violation involves another crime—such as assault, stalking, or strangulation—enhanced penalties under those sections apply.

For a violation, the defendant must also pay a special fine, pay for all expenses incurred by the victim as a result of the abuse, and complete a batterer's intervention program. Additionally, the court can order the offender to stay out of defined geographic zones, wear a GPS tracking device, and attend substance abuse treatment.

Stalking Crimes

A person commits the crime of stalking by:

  • repeatedly contacting or engaging in alarming or annoying behavior aimed at the victim that would cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress, or
  • making threats intended to place the victim in fear of death or bodily injury.

For example, repeatedly calling or emailing someone after the person has asked the offender to stop can constitute stalking.

A defendant is subject to up to two and a half years in jail or five years in prison and a $1,000 fine. Second and subsequent convictions for stalking are punishable with two to ten years in jail or prison. Stalking in violation of a protective order carries penalties of one to five years in jail or prison.

Strangulation

Strangulation occurs when an offender intentionally obstructs the normal breathing or blood circulation by applying pressure to the victim's throat or neck or by blocking their nose and mouth.

A defendant faces up to two and a half years in jail or five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. The potential prison time increases to ten years and the fine increases to $10,000 for a repeat offense or if the conduct causes serious bodily injury or violates an abuse prevention order.

(Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 209A, § 7; ch. 265, §§ 15D, 43 (2021).)

Arrest, Bail, and Firearm Restrictions in Domestic Violence Cases

On top of imprisonment and monetary penalties, Massachusetts provides the following conditions, restrictions, and penalties in domestic violence cases.

Arrests and Response to Domestic Abuse Calls

An arrest is the preferred response whenever a police officer witnesses or has probable cause to believe that a person committed one of the following crimes against a family or household member:

  • any felony
  • any misdemeanor that constitutes domestic abuse, or
  • assault and battery.

The commonwealth has a mandatory arrest policy when police witness or have probable cause to believe that a person violated an abuse prevention order.

Bail and Jail Holds for Domestic Violence Charges

Pretrial release or bail conditions in domestic violence cases typically include restrictions such as ordering the offender to stay away from and not contact the victim. They may also include a curfew, mandatory sobriety, and undergoing treatment.

A person arrested for a domestic violence offense cannot be released on bail sooner than six hours after their arrest, except if a judge does so in open court.

Firearms Restrictions for Domestic Violence Charges and Convictions

The judge can require an offender charged with a domestic violence offense to refrain from possessing firearms or other dangerous weapons. Massachusetts prohibits offenders convicted of a misdemeanor for a domestic violence offense from possessing any firearm for at least five years after the conviction. Violating an order to surrender firearms subjects the offender to up to two and a half years in jail and a $5,000 fine. Additionally, federal law contains a firearms restriction provision as well.

(Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, § 129B; ch. 209A, §§ 3C, 6; ch. 276, §§ 28, 42A, 58A; 18 U.S.C. §§ 921, 922 (2021).)

Talk to a Lawyer

If you have been arrested for or charged with a crime of domestic violence, contact a local criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. A conviction for domestic violence can have serious, long-lasting consequences. A lawyer can help you navigate the court system and discuss potential outcomes in your case based on your unique set of circumstances.

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