State Domestic Violence Laws

Domestic violence is a serious problem in the United States. There is no national law addressing the matter. The only federal law addressing domestic violence is the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization Act of 2022. 

President Joe Biden signed this into law last year. This omnibus appropriations package ensures funding for all VAWA programs until 2027. It expands programs for Indigenous, LGBTQ+, and campus sexual assault.

States set their own domestic violence laws without relying on the federal government. As a result, laws vary from state to state and sometimes between jurisdictions within states. States have different definitions of domestic abuse, mandatory reporting laws, and social services available to victims of crimes.

Victims of intimate partner violence should understand what domestic violence laws and policies involve before they plan to leave a toxic relationship.

If you are in immediate danger, get to a safe location and call 911. You should only use this information when you are in a safe place. It should not replace the immediate help of police, fire, EMS, or other first responders.

Arrest Policies

Law enforcement is the first line of defense in domestic violence cases. How police respond to a family violence case will set the tone for the entire case afterward. State law determines what the police response must be when responding to a domestic violence call. Nearly all states have a mandatory arrest policy. Police must make an arrest when there is a domestic violence call. There may be other requirements before the police will arrest, such as:

  • Probable cause. This means either evidence of a felony or a misdemeanor committed in the officer's presence. One person is seriously injured, or the couple keeps fighting after police officers arrive.
  • Violation of a protective order or restraining order.
  • Violence against a minor child or elderly family member.
  • Reasonable belief that the primary aggressor will return or cause more harm if not detained.

A few states still allow law enforcement officers to use discretion when handling a domestic violence call. Officers may arrest either or both partners or neither if they can resolve the issue at the scene. Most battered women advocates argue against this process, as it is unsafe for the victim and the perpetrator to leave everyone at the scene.

The Court System

Domestic violence falls between family court and the criminal justice system. Because it involves crimes of physical abuse and sometimes sexual violence, it is a criminal law matter. Family courts are part of the case when the abuser and victim are in an intimate relationship, married, or have children.

Abuse victims may be reluctant to press charges against their abuser because of this connection. Depending on the state laws, criminal charges stemming from domestic violence can result in:

  • The abuser losing the right to child custody or visitation
  • A presumption of abuse in future custody or visitation hearings
  • Up to a lifetime prohibition on firearms ownership (even in so-called "must issue" states)
  • An immediate protective order and likelihood of a permanent restraining order

Most state courts take domestic violence very seriously. No-contact orders are issued ex parte meaning the abuser does not have to be present for the initial hearing. Domestic violence victims should take full advantage of the court's protection and worry about the impact on the abuser when they are safe.

Mandatory Reporting

Most mandatory reporting requirements involve child abuse or dependent adult abuse. Mandatory reporting means that people in regular contact with the protected group must report to law enforcement when they know or believe someone is being abused. Mandatory report laws protect people unable to report abuse themselves, like children, the elderly, and disabled people.

Domestic violence mandatory reporting does not exist in all states. The thinking is that competent adults should be able to report abuse independently, without a mandated reporter doing it for them. Also, victims of domestic abuse may be working on an escape plan. Notifying police could place victims at risk from their abuser.

Some states, such as California, require doctors and other medical professionals to report physical abuse. Physicians may face criminal charges for failing to report domestic violence. Therapists and psychologists are not required to report since the law applies only to physical violence.

Restraining Orders and Protective Orders: What They Do

Nothing is as misunderstood in domestic violence cases as the restraining order. Everyone advises partner or dating violence victims to "get a restraining order" without understanding what one is and what it does.

A restraining order, or a no-contact or protective order, is a court order issued by a judge against a batterer. There are two types of orders. The respondent does not have to be present for the temporary restraining order (TRO). It expires in a certain number of days, usually 30. The parties must appear in a court proceeding so the judge can decide if the order needs to be permanent.

Police may issue an emergency order when they arrest someone for domestic violence. An emergency order may only last for 24 hours, long enough for the victim to leave the premises.

Whichever kind of order it is, these orders only do certain things:

  • They prohibit the respondent from coming within a certain distance (usually 100 feet) of the victim.
  • They prohibit the respondent from coming within a certain distance (usually 500 feet) of places where the victim lives, works, or frequents. There are exceptions when the victim and respondent work in the same building or must take the same bus.
  • The respondent must surrender all firearms and other weapons. In states with "red flag" laws, the respondent may have to have a court hearing to have the weapons returned.
  • They prohibit phone calls, social media contact, or other contact with the victim. Any such contact becomes criminal trespass.
  • A restraining order may extend to children, family members, or other household members.

A restraining order will not protect the bearer against criminal attack. It will not prevent the respondent from coming to a house and attacking the residents. It only provides police a means to arrest the respondent if they violate the order. If a victim cannot avoid contact with the subject of a restraining order, then having one is no better than not having it.

Domestic Violence Programs for Housing

An issue that has plagued domestic violence victims is finding a place to live. Lack of available housing is a problem across America, and state laws have not kept pace with rising costs. Domestic violence victims need new homes at a moment in their lives when they can least afford one. They may be facing eviction for reasons beyond their control.

The National Housing Law Project (NHLP) is an advocacy group working for fair housing in all states. They help victims of domestic and sexual abuse get Section 8 vouchers, and work with agencies helping victims with early lease termination under the VAWA.

Not all victims qualify for early lease termination. The program only applies to residents of low-income or federally funded housing. Owners or renters in private homes will not be eligible. You should get legal information fired to break a private lease. But don't let a lease keep you in an abusive home.

Each state has its own domestic violence assistance programs. Contact your state department of justice or your county courthouse for more information. FindLaw has a complete, updated list of state domestic violence resources.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or TTY 1-800-787-3224 is a 24-hour hotline that can connect you to immediate information in your state. If you need immediate help, this is the number to call.

Get Legal Help Understanding Your State's Domestic Violence Laws

Escaping domestic violence is a complex process that demands courage from the victim. Professional help is available. If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, contact an experienced local family law attorney to learn how to regain your independence.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Victims of domestic violence can press charges against their abuser
  • The ability or requirements to press charges varies in each state
  • Contacting a family law attorney or advocacy groups for advice is essential

Some attorneys represent victims of domestic violence. Others defend the rights of those accused of domestic abuse or other related crimes. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

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