Is Domestic Violence A Felony?

A man with a clenched fist in the foreground and a woman siting on a coach in the background.

All too often, violent domestic crimes plague our society. Both civil and criminal courts can deal with these crimes. However, the legal framework for this kind of crime varies from state to state, which can make it hard to determine which category the offense falls into.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence says that 20 people are assaulted by their partner every 60 seconds in the United States. Lawmakers have taken legal measures to protect vulnerable and powerless victims of this type of crime. Many states have more than one law in place to protect people from domestic violence committed by family members or partners. It is therefore vital for everyone to be aware of the local regulations regarding this matter, as they may face severe consequences depending on which state they reside in.

This article will talk about how serious domestic violence charges are and whether they are misdemeanors or felonies. Additionally, we will explore how different states approach this issue and what defenses a person can use when accused of violating such laws.

What Is Domestic Violence?

A woman with her hand up covering her face, with the word "STOP" written on it.

Domestic violence includes any kind of physical or sexual abuse done by a person’s current partner, former partner, or another family member. This type of maltreatment includes violent acts such as hitting, slapping, punching, hurling objects at them, and many more destructive behaviors that can cause severe damage to the victim’s body and psyche. Domestic violence can involve those with an intimate connection, including roommates, dates, those who have children with the victim, spouses, or any family member, and it is not limited to two people in a romantic relationship.. In certain states, domestic violence laws protect in-laws too!

Sexual assault is an unfortunately widespread form of domestic violence, especially for women. One in ten women have been sexually assaulted or hurt by a partner they are close to or live with, which is shocking.

Domestic violence is not just physical abuse; it also includes emotional and financial abuse. For instance, an abuser may threaten something important to the victim in order to cut them off emotionally from their family and friends. Financial abusers often don’t let their victims work or make money on their own, making the victim dependent on handouts from the abuser.

In legal terms, the key forms of abuse are physical, psychological, and sexual assault. Domestic violence can affect both genders as perpetrators or victims, with females more frequently reported to be on the receiving end, in addition to child or elderly mistreatment.

Domestic violence is a broad term that includes a wide range of crimes committed by former partners, such as fiancees, ex-boyfriends, ex-spouses, and roommates. Violent crimes, such as battery, assault, and sexual offenses, are all included under this frightening umbrella term.

Domestic Violence Charges: Misdemeanor Or Felony?

A man's hands holding prison cell bars.

Oftentimes, this type of violence is deemed a misdemeanor. But, depending on the circumstances, it could be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor. This is why domestic violence crimes are often called “wobblers.” In comparison, misdemeanors are less serious offenses that carry a maximum sentence of one year in county jail. Most of the time, the judge will only give fines, probation, and hours of community service. On the other hand, felonies are much more serious and usually lead to state prison sentences that are longer than a year, depending on how bad the crime was. Sometimes, the court will give probation, but it will still require a certain number of days in prison and payment of various fees.

Domestic violence is commonly considered a misdemeanor when an individual threatens or employs physical force against someone with whom they share intimate connections or reside together. This can be shown in clear cases of assault and battery, like when someone intentionally scares their partner and the other person is afraid because they have a good reason to think the person who scared them could hurt them. In these kinds of situations, it’s not unusual for someone to be charged with a misdemeanor.

If you use physical force against your partner during an argument, you could be charged with misdemeanor domestic violence, which is a serious crime.

Emotional and financial abuse is often considered a misdemeanor charge under the law. Constant verbal abuse, like screaming, manipulating, criticizing, or condemning in an offensive way, could be considered misdemeanors. Depending on the state, misdemeanors will stay on your record for different lengths of time.

Accordingly, domestic violence has usually been deemed a misdemeanor. Still, there are cases of domestic violence that can be considered felonies in some jurisdictions, and we will look at those in more detail here.

Felony Domestic Violence — Key Elements

As we’ve discussed, a typical domestic violence case is usually charged as a misdemeanor. However, due to certain factors, it can be considered more serious — resulting in the potential for felony charges. Here are some of these aggravating circumstances:

— Prior Convictions

If someone has a past misdemeanor conviction for domestic violence, it is likely that they will be charged with a felony. So that victims don’t get hurt again, people who break the law more than once can be arrested without a warrant and given longer sentences; the court can even issue a permanent injunction. The law seeks to ensure no future incidents of such abuse occur again.

— Child Or Senior Citizen Victim

Keep in mind that domestic violence does not exclusively involve romantic partners. Causing pain or harm to a child or elderly person may result in charging the offender with a felony instead of just a misdemeanor offense.

— Use Of A Weapon

If someone physically harms another person by slapping or throwing objects at them, they may only receive a misdemeanor charge. But if the attacker uses something as a weapon, like a hammer, golf club, pipe, or metal stick, it is considered aggravated battery and the attacker will be charged with a felony.

What is considered a hazardous weapon can depend on the circumstances. For example, when an assailant uses fabric or even a pillow to try and strangle someone, the court will see this as using a weapon.

There are times when a domestic violence crime may be tried as a felony. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Where a child witnessed the act of violence.
  • There’s evidence of a long-standing history of abuse in a first-time conviction.
  • The defendant violated a restraining order or a protective injunction to commit the abuse.
  • The victim suffered severe bodily harm or serious corporal injury.
  • There were drugs or alcohol involved, or the defender had a DUI record.
  • The victim died from the abuse.

Domestic Violence Laws Vary Between States

From Washington to Oklahoma, states differ in their domestic violence laws. In Kentucky, for example, aggression against family members or between married and unmarried couples is considered aggravated assault. On the other hand, some places recognize it as a separate charge from general assault. No matter which state you’re in, it pays to know your rights!

In Wisconsin, a person who has been abused at home can use property damage caused by the abuser as part of their case. However, even though they may be able to make a claim in court, law enforcement will not have the authority to make arrests based on this proof alone since it is not defined as true abuse.

In North Carolina, domestic abuse is defined as causing harm to spouses, both current and former; people residing or having lived together; parents and their children or grandparents and grandchildren; individuals with a shared child regardless of marital status; past or present housemates; as well as those in an intimate relationship, either actively dating now or formerly.

In California, specific laws govern domestic violence cases and are enshrined in the Penal Code (California Penal Code Section 243(e)(1).) Depending on the severity of the incident, an individual can be charged with “domestic battery” or “corporal injury to a spouse.” If found guilty of either offense, then it counts as one strike according to California’s three-strike law.

In Texas, domestic abuse is not covered under a separate statute. Instead, assault laws apply to family violence cases as well. However, those who are in the same household or in a dating relationship face additional penalties if charged with such an offense. In Ohio, perpetrators of great bodily harm due to domestic violence may be convicted of a fifth-degree felony and sentenced to one year’s incarceration. Furthermore, third-degree felony convictions can result in five years’ imprisonment for the perpetrator(s).

Domestic abuse in the state of Alabama can be a number of things, depending on who is being hurt. This includes arson, assault, child abuse, criminal coercion, criminal trespass, harassment, kidnapping, and more. Depending on the severity of each action taken against someone in this situation, there are three different degrees that may result in varying punishments: first-degree domestic violence, second-degree domestic violence, and third-degree domestic violence. Additionally, there are specific punishments for cases that involve strangulation or suffocation as well.

Under a protection order, there are different felony-level penalties that can be applied when the abuse happens in front of, or to a child. Furthermore, police officers may also make arrests without warrants if necessary.

Arizona takes domestic violence seriously and is one of the few states to have a specific criminal code for it. Under this law, convicted abusers can be subjected to jail time ranging from 6 months to a year, along with hefty fines. In cases of aggravated domestic assault, the court has the power to issue restraining orders and must take into account any violent acts that person has done in the past.

In Vermont, domestic assault is any act that leads to the physical injury of a family or household member or willfully induces fear of imminent bodily harm. The punishable consequences may include up to 18 months’ imprisonment and/or $5,000 in fines. In comparison with New York’s laws on family offenses, there are also additional protective orders that vary depending on each particular case; these orders can be temporary or permanent.

Defenses To Domestic Violence Charges

If you are charged with domestic violence, the best thing to do for a good outcome is to find a criminal defense lawyer with a lot of experience. Building a strong relationship with your lawyer is important if you want them to come up with the best strategy to protect you and your future. Below are some common defenses:

— Lack Of Intention 

In criminal law, intent is the most important thing, so if your defense lawyer can show that it was an accident and not on purpose, you have a good chance of not being charged with domestic violence. The prosecutor must demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that you purposefully attacked the victim before any conviction can be made; this gives those accused a fair opportunity to prove their innocence.

— Self-Defense

When it comes to protecting yourself or others from domestic violence, self-defense is a powerful tool. In this case, the abuser must prove that the victim’s actions were violent and that they only fought back in kind. So, people who use self-defense to protect themselves are often found not guilty of any crimes the accuser says they did.

More often than not, this defense is employed when violence occurs during a confrontation. Your criminal defense lawyer must show that the act of self-defense was done at the right time and was only in defense of the original attack for it to be considered acceptable.

— False Allegations

Protecting people who are victims of domestic violence is taken very seriously by the police, so much so that false accusations are becoming more common. Upon receiving reports of domestic violence, agents are quick to respond and often punish perpetrators more severely than they would in regular assault cases. This demonstrates how significantly legal systems take these offenses into account when making judgments.

If you have been wrongly accused of domestic violence, your lawyer can work to show that the accusation is not true.

— Provocation

Provocation is another defense that is accepted in domestic violence cases. It is usually the result of a heated argument and is not thought of as a planned act. It is important to note that the person making this defense is admitting to committing an act of violence but is claiming it was done in response to another person’s provocation.

Penalties For A Domestic Violence Conviction

The penalties for a domestic violence conviction depend on whether it is a felony or misdemeanor charge. It also depends on the laws of the state where the defendant is charged.

— Misdemeanor Domestic Violence Conviction

When someone is convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence for the first time, but there are mitigating circumstances, they usually have to pay fines and spend up to a year in jail. Depending on the details of the case, this jail time could be cut down a lot or even replaced with probation, as long as the specific rules are followed. An experienced lawyer can help you fight for the following:

  • Dropping other charges related to the domestic violence
  • Lesser charges
  • Probation rather than jail time

If you’re based in Alabama, a third-degree domestic violence conviction is classified as a Class A misdemeanor and could result in up to 365 days behind bars plus an additional $6,000 fine. If you commit the same crime while living in California, expect anywhere from 0–365 days of jail time with or without fines, and your sentence may be compounded by their Three Strikes Sentencing Laws. Lastly, if you are located in Ohio, depending on whether the charge was labeled a first-degree misdemeanor or a third-degree misdemeanor, respectively, the penalties range from 60 days to 6 months of imprisonment alongside either a $500 or $1,000 maximum fine.

— Felony Domestic Violence Conviction

A conviction for felony domestic violence can lead to a substantial prison sentence and hefty fines. But, depending on the brutality of the act itself, there might be several more charges imposed, including kidnapping, the use of a firearm, restraint from authorities, or sexual assault. This is all determined by any court responsible for addressing such matters.

If a victim in Ohio sustained severe bodily harm from abuse, the abuser would be charged with a felony domestic violence charge. Depending on whether it’s the fifth or third-degree category, they may face one to five years’ imprisonment for their actions.

In Pennsylvania, those facing aggravated assault charges are subject to up to twenty years in prison and hefty fines. In Washington, anyone found guilty of domestic violence charges will be forced to pay a fee of $100 before anything else, but if convicted of Class C felonies, the culprit may face one full year behind bars and be charged with an additional fine of up to $5,000.

In Georgia, those convicted of a felony could face a five-year prison sentence and pay a hefty fine of $5,000. Any attempt by the felon to contact their child is deemed unlawful, as they may also forfeit their parental rights. Also, people with felonies can no longer work in some jobs in Alaska, like healthcare, because of license restrictions put in place by state law.

Other penalties that can result from a domestic violence conviction are:

  • Compulsory minimum sentences.
  • Compulsory anger management classes or counseling sessions.
  • Mandatory restraining or no-contact order.
  • Firearm restrictions.
  • Loss of child custody or child visitation rights.
  • Prohibitions or restrictions on probation, supervised release, or parole.
  • Paying restitution to the victim or a domestic violence fund for victims’ programs.
  • Deportation, exclusion from admission, or denial of neutralization for non-U.S. citizens.

The Bottom Line

By default, domestic violence is a misdemeanor. However, under certain circumstances, the crime can quickly be upgraded to a felony. These conditions may include prior convictions for related offenses, the utilization of a weapon in the act of aggression, the escalation of physical force towards minors or elderly victims, and/or any evidence that indicates severe bodily injury has occurred.

State laws decide both the punishments and lengths of jail time for people who are convicted of domestic violence felonies. Generally speaking, perpetrators face sentences ranging from one year in prison as well as fines or monetary compensation to victims. Also, people who are charged with these crimes may lose certain rights, like parental custody or a driver’s license, depending on their jurisdiction’s policies.

Some states give money to victims to help pay for their physical and mental health care. They can also, without paying a fee, ask the civil court for a restraining order or a permanent injunction. The court will then keep you informed on the status of your case as it progresses over time. Following a conviction, there is also an option to demand sole parental custody or modify child visitation rights through the filing of a petition in civil proceedings.

Whether you are a victim or have been charged with domestic violence, getting a good attorney from a local law firm is crucial. For victims, your lawyer may be able to work with the assistant district attorney in charge of your case to protect your physical and emotional health from further abuse. For perpetrators, your lawyer can put together a defense strategy tailored to your case and your past criminal history.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is domestic violence a crime in the U.S.?

Domestic violence is definitely a crime in the U.S., and it is usually considered a misdemeanor. However, certain aggravating circumstances can elevate it to a felony. If considered a misdemeanor offense, those convicted may face up to one year of jail time as well as monetary fines of up to $1,000. On the other hand, if someone is charged with a felony, they usually get harsher punishments like longer prison terms, fines, and the loss of their civil rights.

Domestic violence is an offense against a person and can be referred to as “family abuse,” “domestic abuse,” or “family violence,” depending on the state. Washington, for instance, prosecutes it like a typical assault with added penalties, such as a $100 fine in addition to the standard assault penalties. On the other hand, California has multiple laws that address domestic violence, including corporal injury to a spouse, sexual battery, and various types of assaults, such as those involving caustic chemicals or deadly weapons.

This role guarantees that those responsible for domestic violence receive the punishment they deserve. For instance, in California, a felony conviction for this crime can lead to up to four years of imprisonment and $5000 in fines. In some states like Michigan, the laws are even more severe; an officer is authorized to arrest an individual if there’s reasonable proof that they engaged in domestic abuse.

What is categorized as domestic violence?

Domestic violence is any form of physical, mental, or emotional harm inflicted upon a significant other, family member, child, roommate (current or former), cohabitant (present and past), or anyone who shares an intrinsic bond. In certain states, domestic violence laws even extend to in-laws! 

Domestic violence is not limited to physical actions; it encompasses a wide range of behaviors, including but not limited to slapping, punching, and pulling hair. Domestic abuse can also include sexual assaults like inappropriate touching or rape. Other tactics used by abusers include constant shouting and belittling language in order to control their victims, as well as denying them the right to work financially, all with the same intended goal: dominance over another person.

Denying an individual their right to liberty or binding them without consent is a form of abuse. Abusive acts also include hurting animals and making it hard for someone to call for help in an emergency.

Domestic abuse can take many different forms, but the essential element is that the victim was either attacked or scared enough to think they would be attacked.

How long does a domestic violence charge stay on your record?

Having a domestic violence charge on your criminal record will haunt you for the rest of your life. Whenever someone runs any kind of background check, that particular incident will become known to them, even if years or decades have passed since the offense. Most of the time, a felony conviction stays on your record for a long time because it is a serious crime. It doesn’t  matter if the domestic violence charge was classified as a misdemeanor or felony; it will remain on your permanent record regardless. Thankfully, with many competent law offices across the United States that can help, you may be able to expunge this blemish from your criminal history completely.

What are the consequences of a domestic violence charge?

A charge of domestic violence can carry severe consequences. In the case of a first offense, you may be charged with a misdemeanor and face potential fines of up to $1000, or even jail time of up to 12 months. It is important to understand your circumstances when facing such criminal charges, as they are taken seriously.

Still, getting convicted of a felony can lead to harsh punishments like jail time and fines. In addition, it may also be accompanied by further repercussions like restraining orders or the forfeiture of parental rights in instances where the attack took place in front ofor was targeted at a child.

There are several other consequences, such as:

  • Strict terms of probation
  • Paying restitution to the victim or a domestic violence fund for victims’ programs
  • Mandatory anger management classes
  • Community service requirements
  • Immigration consequences, especially if the offense was a felony
  • Temporary or permanent loss of the right to bear firearms