Domestic violence charges are the legal accusations made by a victim against an alleged perpetrator of domestic violence. Domestic violence charges are serious and are usually prosecuted. The nature and penalties of charges vary by state.

Penalties of domestic violence charges

Criminal domestic violence charges can be either felonies or misdemeanors. If the victim is seriously injured or killed, the charge is a felony. If the victim sustains minor injuries or is uninjured, the charge is a generally a misdemeanor. If a perpetrator is convicted of the charges, the severity of the penalty will depend on the brutality of the crime, the laws of the state, and whether the perpetrator has had previous domestic violence arrests or convictions.

States differ in how they classify felony and misdemeanor charges, but generally, felony domestic violence charges include certain types of assault, murder, manslaughter, rape, and kidnapping. Penalties for felonies are prison time and fines. The length of the prison sentence and amount of fine depend on the seriousness of the offense.

Misdemeanor domestic violence charges may include coercion, breaking and entering, stalking, or interfering with the reporting of domestic violence. Penalties often include jail time, fines, probation, and court-ordered treatment programs. Misdemeanors may be penalized as felonies if the perpetrator has a history of domestic violence charges.

A domestic violence conviction carries other consequences as well. If convicted of a felony, the perpetrator loses his or her right to possess a firearm for life. Doctors, nurses, day-care operators and other professionals who are convicted may have their licenses revoked. If an unnaturalized citizen is convicted, he or she may be deported or denied citizenship.

Importantly, once domestic violence charges are filed, the victim becomes a witness for the prosecution and can't drop the charges. Only the district attorney can drop charges with approval from a judge.

Defense against a domestic violence charge

Defenses in domestic violence cases include self-defense and de minimis infractions. Self-defense is often hard to prove because generally the physically stronger party is the accused. A de minimus infraction is considered too trivial to be considered a criminal act. This defense is best used in cases of harassment.

If you are charged with domestic violence

When law enforcement receives a report charging domestic violence, they are required to arrest and jail the accused within four hours of the report. If you are arrested, you may be prohibited from contacting the victim by a protection order and may have to post bail. You will have to appear in court and turn in any weapons you own.

It's critical to immediately retain the services of a defense lawyer if you face domestic violence charges. If you can't afford a lawyer, the court will provide one.

Additional resources:

Washington Courts: The What, Why and Who, as relevant to Criminal and Civil Court Domestic Violence Cases

Related Legal Guides:

The Basics of Domestic Violence

Domestic Violence Restraining Order

Domestic Violence against Men