Domestic Violence Laws

domestic-violence-lawsDomestic Violence (also referred to as intimate partner violence and spouse abuse) is an offense where the offender and victim have an intimate relationship and share or have shared a residence, or have a child in common.  Domestic violence laws encompass standard assault, battery, and sexual offenses that sometimes occur between domestic partners.  Domestic violence statues also provide criminal sanctions for violations of protective orders, with some states including dating relationships among the list of domestic situations covered by restraining orders.

Domestic violence covers a wide range of abuse including any threatening or violent act, regardless of intent or lack thereof to harm another.  Domestic violence examples include threats of imminent bodily harm, intimidation, stalking, physical assault or abuse (i.e., hitting, slapping, pushing, shoving, kicking, biting, pinching, punching, hair pulling, beating), and sexual abuse  (i.e. unwanted sexual touching, forced sexual acts).  Domestic violence occurs in every racial, socioeconomic, ethnic, and religious group, although conditions such as poverty, drug or alcohol abuse, and mental illness increase its likelihood.  In addition, studies indicate that the incidence of domestic violence among homosexual couples is approximately equivalent to that found among heterosexual couples.

Domestic violence laws involving married or cohabiting couples received vast media attention during the 1990s. The highly publicized 1995 trial of former professional football player and movie actor  O. J. (Orenthal James) Simpson for the murders of his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Lyle Goldman thrust the domestic violence issue onto the front pages of newspapers for many months. Simpson was acquitted of the murder charges, but evidence produced at his trial showed that he was arrested in 1989 for spousal battery and that he had threatened to kill his former wife on numerous occasions.  The disclosure that a prominent sports figure and movie star had abused his wife prompted national discussion on the causes of domestic violence, its prevalence, and effective means of eliminating it.  Some think that stricter consequences may be one way to decrease the number of domestic violence cases that make it into the United States court system for adjudication.

Domestic violence charges may be filed as a misdemeanor or a felony. The filing decision is made exclusively by the prosecutor of the case and is based on the facts of the case, victim and witness credibility, and severity of the victim’s injuries.  Severe injuries (including multiple bruises and broken bones) will almost always be charged as a felony. No injury or slight injury cases will generally be filed as a misdemeanor.  Both prior acts of reported domestic violence and the criminal history of the accused may also influence how a case is filed as well as the outcome and sentencing at trial.

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994 makes it a federal crime to cross a state or Indian country line to commit a crime of violence against a spouse or intimate partner, 18 U.S.C.A. § 2262(a)(1); or to force a partner to cross a state line and in the course or as a result of doing so commit a crime of violence, 18 U.S.C.A. § 2262(A)(2).  VAWA also criminalizes interstate stalking, §2261A; crossing or causing a person to cross state lines in violation of a protective order, § 2262; and accords full faith and credit to protective orders so those protective orders can be enforced in all states and Indian lands, 18 U.S.C.A. § 2265.  For example, a defendant’s conviction was upheld in U.S. v. Page, (6th Cir. 1999), when the defendant severely beat his ex-girlfriend into near-unconsciousness, carried her to his car and drove for four hours across state lines, threatening her with more violence to keep her from seeking help while her injuries worsened as the trip progressed.  Aggravation of preexisting injuries while crossing state lines was held to be sufficient to prove a criminal violation of VAWA.  Incidentally, a woman was convicted under VAWA for driving from New Jersey to New York where she and an accomplice murdered her estranged husband with axes (U.S. v. Gluzman, (2d Cir. 1998).

Consequences for conviction on a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence include mandatory domestic counseling, probation or parole, a brief sentence (0 to 1 year), mandatory anger management class, significant fines and/or charitable donations, community service hours, and stay-away orders from the victim.  A felony charge can result in the same consequences with added jail time.

Defenses for a domestic violence charge includes proving the act was performed as an act of self defense, showing insufficient evidence, proving factual innocence, and proving the act was justifiable or excusable. Domestic violence laws seek to protect by preventing a situation escalating to further crimes, but they also punish offenders.

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