Is domestic violence punishable under criminal law?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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Whether domestic violence is a crime depends on the particular circumstances, as well as the laws of the state in which the act or acts occur. Often domestic violence is both a crime subject to criminal punishment and a civil wrong subject to restraint upon personal conduct and an award of a money damages in a civil lawsuit.

A frequent pattern in domestic violence cases is for the victim to be abused, call the police, press charges, then reconcile with the abuser, and seek to have the charges dropped, only to have the entire pattern repeated. Because of this, in some local communities and states, domestic violence is now prosecuted as a crime by city and district attorneys, even without charges being brought by the abused person, and even without his or her assistance. In these localities, a criminal case may be brought against the person causing the harm without a complaint being made by the victim.

Domestic violence is considered a crime against the community and the “state” should prosecute all harms against the community. Such localities try to “get the word out” that local authorities will not tolerate domestic violence; offenses will be prosecuted with or without the assistance of the victim.

Possible Penalties for Criminal Domestic Violence

As mentioned, charges and sentencing for domestic violence will depend on the case, but we can present what some possible consequences may be. 

If the charge is serious enough to be a felony, such as when the violence leads to serious physical harm, death or rape, a defendant could face a prison sentence and fines. The length of prison sentence will vary depending on the severity of the crime and whether the defendant has prior violent crimes on his or her record. The most serious convictions can lead to a life sentence, or in some states where the death penalty is legal, a death sentence can (in the most severe circumstances) result from a domestic violence charge. 

Additional consequences of a felony conviction include losing the right to bare firearms, or if the convict is in the United States on a visa and is an unnaturalized person, they may be deported. Practicing physicians, nurses or other licensed professionals may have their license revoked if convincted of felony domestic violence. If children are involved, the penalties may also be more severe. 

If the charge is a lesser misdemeanor, such as when there is no injury or a very minor one, fines are usually assessed and a charge can result in a short jail sentence. A misdemeanor can also result in probation time or required hours of therapy or treatment programs. If a person was on probation when the domestic violence occurred, this could mean more severe penalties; whereas if there were aggravating circumstances surrounding the act and the person has no record and otherwise good references, the penalties may be reduced. First time offenders may receive a lighter sentence, but not always. 

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Getting Help

If you have been the victim of domestic violence and need information on how to proceed in pressing charges, contact a criminal law attorney immediately. 

Information for Defendants

When facing domestic violence charges, it is imparative that a defendant retain a criminal defense attorney; if they cannot afford one, the state will provide one, but it is usually best to get the help of a trusted, experienced lawyer. A person accused of domestic violence will be put into jail within hours of a report. A bail will be set at an amount that depends on the details of the case and generally a restraning order is issued against the defendant so they may not contact the victim. A court date is set for trial and the prosecution begins to prepare a case to show that the defendant committed a violent crime and that appropriate penalties should be assessed. Domestic violence charges are taken seriously in the criminal justice system, so it is very important to obtain a qualified attorney to represent you if you are facing charges. 

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