I’m continuing to reprint a few articles from my website, to keep them available after a redesign. This was originally published in 2009.
DOMESTIC ABUSE: Legal issues to keep in mind when writing about this all-too-common situation
A writer whose plot involves domestic abuse posed several questions.
Consider this scenario:
A woman is in a violent marriage that’s getting worse. Her husband assaults her one night and is arrested. At his initial appearance in court the next morning, bond is set at $1,000. He posts bond by credit card and after spending one night in jail, goes home. Later, as a condition of a plea agreement, he agrees to attend anger management classes and AA. His wife reconciles with him, but is angry with her family and friends for making clear that they do not trust him and think she should leave him. As a result, she becomes more isolated, and one night, when he decides he’s tired of the wagon, of people telling him what to do, and of her disapproval, he drinks a half-rack of beer and most of a fifth of whiskey and beats her badly. The oldest child, just twelve, calls 911, and police and EMTs respond. She’s taken to the hospital, he’s taken to jail, and the kids are taken to a neighbor’s house to wait for their grandparents to arrive from out of town.
What’s going on, and what’s next?
Pre-trial release: The amount of bail and other terms will depend on the charges and circumstances. In this scenario, the charge is probably a misdemeanor and a first offense. Potential charges in domestic violence vary widely, depending on the facts. Some are misdemeanors, others are felonies of several types, each with its own elements–the minimum facts that must be proven in court. Terms also vary: is it partner assault, domestic assault, family assault, simple or aggravated, first or second degree, or something else? Check the law in your story state.
Many factors affect pre-trial release, but the amount of the bail bond might be low if the victim isn’t seriously injured, the accused is particularly contrite, and no drugs, alcohol, or weapons are involved. Another factor is whether the accused has a steady job and ties to the community–not because that makes him less culpable, but because the primary purpose of bail is to ensure that a defendant shows up for later court appearances and those ties make him less of a flight risk.
And yes, some courts do indeed accept credit cards.
Release on bond typically involves numerous conditions. The main one: no contact with the victim. But if she tells the prosecutor she doesn’t want that–that she’s sure it won’t happen again, he’s really a good man but was upset over a problem at work or with one of the kids or she made him mad–the prosecutor won’t request that condition, because it’s clear she wouldn’t honor it. And the prosecutor wants her trust–there’s no point alienating the victim. If she’s in court, the judge might ask her if she wants him ordered to stay away. Some women genuinely believe the problem won’t recur. Others fear that a no-contact order would just make things worse. Some want limited involvement with police, courts, or government agencies for their own reasons; some fear the possibility of a Child Protective Services investigation; and others worry about finances or keeping their children from their father. Other typical conditions of release: refrain from drinking or using drugs, attend AA or NA, make all court appearances, and cause no further trouble.
Protective orders: I want to distinguish between a no-contact order issued after criminal charges have been filed or after a criminal conviction and a protective order. The purpose of a p.o. is to prevent future violence. According to statistics reported by the ABA (link below), 86% of women who received a protection order state the abuse either stopped or was greatly reduced.
The requirements and terms depend on the law in your story state, but a p.o. typically requires a showing that violence has occurred in the past and could occur in the future. (See the state-by- state info in the ABA summary of statutes, link below.) It does not require criminal charges or a criminal conviction. Common terms prohibit contact with the applicant and any minor children, including phone calls and emails as well as physical contact, harassment, and going to or near a school or day care that a minor child attends or to an adult’s work place or church. Protective orders may also prohibit use or transfer of real or personal property, and in some states, can be used to establish temporary child support. The person to be protected must apply for the order by going to the local prosecutor, legal aid office, or court–usually justice court. You can’t get a p.o. for someone else, except that a parent may obtain a p.o. covering minor children. A violation doesn’t trigger arrest; the person who obtained the order must go to court to request that the person restrained be found in contempt and fined or jailed.
All too often–again, because of the complicated relationships–the person getting the order ignores violations, or ignores it herself, which makes later enforcement much harder.
Going to trial: So charges are filed and the case is set for trial. Cooperation problems can crop up again. If a victim refuses to testify or threatens to recant her story, then prosecutors must weigh the evidence and decide whether they have enough to make the case without her testimony. Police investigation, eyewitness testimony, and medical reports may be enough–especially with photographs. Jurors will wonder why they’re not hearing from the victim, but most will be savvy enough to figure it out.
It’s not uncommon for a woman to testify at trial and recant her prior reports of violence. Some courts allow experts, such as social workers or psychologists working in the field of domestic violence, to testify that this is typical behavior. The expert can’t comment on the witness’s credibility or say that she was actually assaulted–both are decisions for the jury–but can offer a explanation for inconsistencies in testimony.
Note that the spousal privilege does not apply in criminal cases involving charges of violence against a spouse or the minor children of either spouse. (My column on spousal privilege discusses it in some detail; see my website.)
Sentencing: As I mentioned previously, the charges possible in domestic violence vary widely. So do the sentencing ranges and options. Some states give courts a wide degree of discretion in sentencing; others dictate mandatory minimums and establish aggravating factors. The particular circumstances are critical. What happened? What injuries occurred? First offense or repeat? Was a weapon involved? What about drugs or alcohol? Were both partners violent, or just one? Some couples develop a relationship based on mutual abuse and violence, making intervention much harder, and complicating the legal situation.
Suspended sentences are common, either on a plea agreement or after a conviction at trial. Release will include extensive conditions, such as successful completion of a drug or alcohol treatment program, anger management sessions, and restitution.
Other options: What do prosecutors do when faced with a woman who needs the financial support her husband or partner provides to care for herself and their kids? This is a tough one. The biggest problem prosecutors face is lack of cooperation from the victim. Because of the complicated emotional situation in abusive relationships, many women are reluctant to end these relationships. Often, the victim doesn’t want the man jailed–she just wants the violence to stop. If an assault has caused serious injuries, it’s hard for a prosecutor to accept a plea agreement that doesn’t involve jail time. A typical solution is a plea agreement with a sentence length appropriate under the statutes and circumstances, but with most of the time suspended. That way, the defendant serves some time in prison but will be released with supervision by local probation officers. If he violates the terms of his release, or commits another assault, he can be charged with violating those terms as well as for any new crimes–a strong incentive to keep one’s nose clean.
Prosecutors often refer victims to social services. These run the gamut, from counseling services to assistance with food and housing to organizations that supervise visitation or transfer of children between estranged or hostile parents.
The “battered wife defense:” Some women strike back. The “battered wife defense” to a homicide charge is a variation of self-defense, and requires proof that the accused was in imminent danger, and that her own actions were intended to protect herself.
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence http://ncadv.org/
American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violencehttp://new.abanet.org/domesticviolence/Pages/default.aspx survey of recent statisticshttp://new.abanet.org/domesticviolence/Pages/Statistics.aspx including prevalence, stalking, same-sex violence, recidivism, and workplace violence, as well as breakdowns by race and ethnicity, and age. Its resources pagehttp://new.abanet.org/domesticviolence/Pages/Resources.aspx includes a summary of state statutes and resources for survivors and attorneys.