Domestic Abuse – Help from the Criminal Justice System
This information is designed to help you learn your rights, but it is not a substitute for legal representation and may not be a complete answer to your individual legal problem. If you need legal help, contact an attorney or your local legal aid office.
How Can Criminal Charges Help Stop the Abuse?
Having the abuser prosecuted for a crime can help protect you:
- The abuser can be jailed,
- The court can order no contact,
- The court can monitor the abuser’s behavior, and/or
- The abuser can be ordered into treatment for domestic abuse, drug and/or alcohol use.
The court system can help try to stop the violence. Abusers usually do not stop using violence by themselves.
What Is a Crime?
Assault is a crime. It is either:
- Physically hurting you on purpose; or
- Forcing sexual contact you don’t want; or
- A threat to cause immediate physical harm.
The worse the physical harm, the more likely the assault can be charged as a felony, rather than a misdemeanor.
Harassing telephone calls are crimes if the abuser repeatedly calls with the intention to abuse or disturb you. This includes hang-up calls.
The crime of stalking/harassment includes stalking or following you, making repeated telephone calls, making repeated hang-up calls, and repeatedly delivering letters or other objects to you. It also includes other acts that interfere with your body, your privacy, or your freedom.
This crime is a felony if it is done because of your race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, disability, age or national origin. It is a felony if the abuser pretended to be someone else while committing the crime or had a dangerous weapon while committing the crime. It is a felony if the victim is under age 18 and the abuser is more than 36 months older than the victim.
Violation of an Order for Protection is a crime if the abuser knows about the Order for Protection.
Violation of a Harassment Restraining Order is a crime if the person restrained knows of the Order.
Other crimes that abusers sometimes commit include property damage, theft, and arson, soliciting or promoting prostitution, and tampering with a witness.
How to Connect with the Criminal Justice System
Any time an abuser commits a crime, you can file a police report. You can file a police report by calling “911,” by going to the police precinct at the time the crime happens, or by calling the police non-emergency number. Ask the police officer to file a report and ask the police officer for the case number of the police report. If you did not call the police at the time of the crime or if the police did not file a report, contact the local law enforcement office and ask them to file a report. You need a police report in order to get protection from the criminal justice system.
Once the police have been notified of a possible crime, they do any further investigation they think is needed. Then the local prosecutor evaluates the police reports and decides whether or not to file criminal charges. Never assume that an abuser will be criminally charged just because:
- The police were called,
- The abuser was arrested, or
- The police filed a report.
Calling the prosecutor can make the difference between charging and not charging. Depending on where you live, the prosecutor is the county attorney, the city attorney, or one of their assistants.
What Happens after Criminal Charges Are Filed against an Abuser?
If the prosecutor decides to prosecute the crime, the abuser must go to court for a first appearance. At this court hearing the abuser must plead guilty or not guilty to the criminal charge.
The judge then orders “conditions of release,” such as:
- Give up guns to law enforcement
- No contact with the victim of the crime
- Requiring the abuser to live at certain addresses or with certain people
- Treatment or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings
The abuser can plead guilty at any time as part of a plea bargain. The legal system encourages “negotiated pleas.” In a negotiated plea the abuser pleads guilty with the understanding that the abuser will receive a less severe sentence or a conviction of a lesser charge.
If the abuser does not plead guilty, the abuser gets a trial. In a trial the jury decides whether or not the abuser is guilty. If found guilty, the judge decides the sentence. Sentences after a negotiated plea or trial include:
- How much prison or jail time served, if any
- Length of any probation
- Conditions of any probation, such as:
- No similar criminal activities
- Stay sober
- Chemical dependency treatment
- Domestic violence counseling
- Community service
What Are the Advantages of Criminal Charges?
If you have been assaulted, you are a crime victim. No one deserves to be abused. No one has the right to abuse you. An abuser should be held responsible for committing a crime. If nothing happens, it sends the abuser the message that the abusive behavior is okay. This helps the abuser believe that using violence is okay and increases the likelihood that violence will be used again. People who work with domestic violence know the one thing that helps end violence is having the abuser criminally charged and prosecuted.
As a result of criminal charges, an abuser may serve jail (or prison) time. This does not always happen. You can tell the judge what type of sentence you want the abuser to receive. It is likely that the court will order the abuser to undergo counseling and/or treatment. The court can also order the abuser to have no contact with you.
What if I Decide I Do Not Want the Abuser Criminally Charged?
Even if you don’t want to have the abuser charged with a crime, you should document the abuse. This can be helpful because if the abuser becomes violent again, you may need to be able to prove that this has happened before. In future court proceedings the court will be more likely to believe there is a history of abuse if the abuse was documented at the time it happened. You can document the abuse by filing a police report and asking that the abuser not be charged. Tell the police that you want to have this incident of abuse documented and kept on file but that you do now want criminal charges to be filed. Ask for a copy of the police report for your own files.
Have photographs taken of any injuries. When the photographs are taken, you should sign them with your name and the date, so that it is clear from the pictures when they were taken. You can ask the police to take pictures or you can have a friend take pictures. If any property was damaged, take pictures of the damage. If you repair or replace the damaged property, keep a receipt.
If you are injured, seek medical attention. Ask your doctor or nurse to write down in your medical records the cause of your injuries. Keep a log or diary of the abuse. Each time the abuser assaults you, hurts you, or threatens you – you should record it. Write down the date and specific information.
[Example: "June 12, 2005: Chris pushed me into the bedroom wall. Said: 'You're lucky I don't have a gun.' Left shoulder was bruised."]