Domestic violence crimes are characterized by physical abuse and threats between people who are in a close familial or social relationship.
This article defines domestic violence and looks at common penalties and issues in criminal cases involving it. The article also provides information both for people looking for help with abuse and for those who have been accused and are looking to protect their legal rights.
"Domestic violence" (or "domestic abuse") is a catch-all term for violent acts or threats between people who have a particular kind of relationship. They may be married, living together, or even just dating. They may share a child in common. They may be family. They may be heterosexual or LGBTQ.
While anyone can become a perpetrator or victim, serious domestic violence injuries typically result from males attacking females. Though murder and rape can be forms of it, domestic violence often consists of lesser forms of physical abuse, such as slapping and pushing. Stalking can also be a form of domestic violence. (Some states use "domestic violence" to describe abuse against children, too.)
Many states define domestic violence as a distinct crime. So, for example, someone who strikes their spouse could be charged with domestic violence instead of (or in addition to) other crimes like assault and battery.
Here's an example of a state defining domestic violence as a distinct crime: In Wisconsin, the crime of "domestic abuse" is any of the following acts committed against a spouse or former spouse, an adult the defendant lives or used to live with, or the parent of the defendant's child:
(Wis. Stat. § 968.075 (2022).)
The penalties for domestic violence crimes vary from state to state. Felony convictions carry harsher penalties than misdemeanors, but even misdemeanor domestic violence crimes usually bring possible (if not likely) jail time.
Recognizing that domestic abusers take advantage of their victims' trust and confidence, prosecutors often push for harsher sentences in domestic violence cases. A prosecutor might, for example, want more jail or prison time for someone who attacked a spouse than for someone who did the same to a stranger.
And domestic violence sentences typically include special protections for victims. For example, a conviction for a crime involving domestic violence might result in a mandatory jail sentence and some type of restraining order. In many states, judges can also order convicted abusers to participate in therapeutic counseling. The counseling might include domestic violence classes and anger management programs.
Police and prosecutors face two common problems when it comes to arresting, charging, and prosecuting domestic violence.
For many reasons, victims of domestic violence are often hesitant to report the abuse. Victims might hope that the abuse was an isolated act that won't happen again. Or they might be afraid that reporting the violence will make the abuser angry and result in more violence.
If a woman and her children are dependent on their abuser's income, she may fear that reporting the violence will lead to a loss of financial support. These understandable reactions are often why many crimes of domestic violence go unreported.
A second difficulty with prosecuting domestic violence cases is that even when they report abuse to the police, victims often refuse to testify against their abusers at trial.
This reluctance can be a problem because victims' statements to the police after the incident often can't be used as evidence in court. The reason for this rule is that defendants have a constitutional right to confront and cross-examine their accusers during the trial. A victim who doesn't testify can't be cross-examined. As a result, prosecutors must sometimes dismiss domestic violence charges. (But sometimes, statements made during 911 calls can be used in court.)
The reluctance to report and testify makes domestic violence one of the hardest crimes to successfully prosecute.
Some states have special rules for domestic violence cases. One such rule allows prosecutors to present evidence that the defendant committed other acts of domestic violence. This rule is an exception to the general rule that prosecutors can't introduce evidence of a defendant's criminal history.
There's plenty of help available for people who have experienced or fear domestic violence. Our Resources for Victims of Crime page lists several sources of aid.
Getting a protective order or restraining order is one of the issues a domestic violence organization might be able to help you with. This kind of order usually bans the abuser from contacting or even being near the victim (say, within 500 feet).
When a victim calls the police to report abuse or seek assistance, officers can often get an immediate emergency restraining order that lasts a few days to a week. This kind of order buys the victim some time to get to court and apply for an order that lasts longer. (Keep in mind that longer-term restraining orders can sometimes be renewed before they expire.)
An abuser who violates the terms of a restraining order—for example, by showing up at a victim's home or place of work—can be arrested and charged with a crime.
Because statistics show that abusers often repeat their behavior, Congress passed a law making it a federal crime for people convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor to have a gun. (Before that, only people convicted of a felony were banned from having guns under federal law.) The law also prohibits people subject to domestic violence restraining orders from having a gun. (18 U.S.C. § 921 and following (2022); see Federal Firearms Ban for Misdemeanor Convictions for more information.)
Many states have their own laws that overlap with the federal ban, meaning that both that federal law and a state's own law could prevent an abuser from having a gun.
If you've been accused of domestic violence, consult an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area. The law varies at least somewhat from state to state, and from state to federal court. A local, knowledgeable attorney should be able to explain the law and procedures to you, determine whether any defenses apply, and advise you whether to go to trial or try to get a plea bargain.