Domestic Violence: Navigating the Legal System


man holding women by the wrists


Domestic violence is a very serious crime. Being hurt by an intimate partner is a painful betrayal, and as many know, the cycle of abuse can be vicious and difficult to break. Domestic violence doesn’t just mean physical violence; it can mean verbal abuse, financial abuse, or sexual abuse.

For many domestic abuse victims, the first step is to confide in a friend or family member about what’s been happening. Oftentimes telling a trusted loved one about the abuse is the best way to get support and encouragement to leave.

Once a victim of domestic violence is safe and away from the abuser, the best thing they can do is report it to the police. If you are in immediate danger, call 911. If not, you can make a report by calling your local non-emergency police line, or by going in person. Law enforcement officials can take your report and also help with setting up restraining orders or providing information about community resources.

Navigating the Legal System

The legal system can seem overwhelming, but that shouldn’t be a reason not to report a crime. Let’s explore what the process entails.

Filing a Police Report

When making a police report, you will be asked to describe the violent incident(s) including details like when and where it occurred. The more details you can provide, the better. Law enforcement officials will ask you to provide any physical evidence or witnesses that you have, in order to strengthen your case. Although this is a very sensitive and scary time, the burden of proof, unfortunately, falls on the victim. The more evidence you can provide, the stronger your case will be.

After filing a report you can apply for a restraining order, which is a legal order that will prevent your abuser from coming near you. If your abuser violates the order and comes within a certain radius of you, they will be violating the law and will be punished. This is another layer of protection that will allow the police to keep your abuser away.

Once you file your police report, you will usually receive a temporary report number until an official case number is assigned. The police will usually call within a few days to follow up on your case and continue the process. Hiring an attorney to help with your case is always a good idea. Lawyers who specialize in domestic violence cases know how to navigate the legal system and can take that burden off victims while they focus on healing.

Many survivors of domestic violence wonder if they will have to face their abuser in court. Fortunately, most cases will not go to a trial. Usually, the defendant pleads guilty and a plea agreement is made before court becomes necessary.

Domestic Violence Charges

When it comes to the actual charges you file against your abuser, things can get a little complicated.

While there are some federal laws in place that relate to domestic violence, most applicable laws will come at the state level. Most states have a law specifically addressing domestic violence. For example, California law states that a domestic battery charge (violence against an intimate partner), is punishable by a $2,000 fine and/or a year in prison. Another California law stipulates that it is a crime to inflict “corporal injury” on a partner. This can be a misdemeanor or a felony charge. More severe punishments can include mandatory minimum sentences, probation restrictions, anger management classes, restraining orders, or firearm restrictions.

In some states, there is no specific criminal law for domestic violence. In Colorado and Wisconsin, for example, a domestic violence charge is merely an enhancer; this means that it can only be added to another charge, such as an assault charge. Fortunately, since domestic violence inherently involves some form of violence, it will qualify for some sort of criminal charge in every state.

Next Steps

Beyond seeking legal help, getting emotional support is also incredibly important after leaving a violent household. Finding a therapist will not only help with your psychological healing but can also help teach you ways to avoid these types of situations in the future. Finding joy again through a hobby or spending time with loved ones can be a good way to begin the healing journey.

Reporting domestic violence to the police and letting an attorney navigate the legal process is the best way that victims can hold their abusive partner accountable. By doing so, you can protect yourself and your family from future violence, and find the support that you need to move on and heal.

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