Is Domestic Violence a Felony?

By Teo Spengler - Updated February 16, 2018
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Sadly, no state is free from domestic violence. Every state has laws on the books making an attack on someone in the attacker's family or household a crime. Sometimes prosecutors charge domestic violence as a felony offense, but often it is charged as a (less serious) misdemeanor offense. The charge depends on the circumstances of the case.

Tip

The term domestic violence includes a wide range of behaviors. In most states, domestic violence can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the behavior, the harm inflicted and the past criminal record of the person charged.

Domestic Violence Doesn't Require a Marriage

Domestic violence isn't limited to people married to each other, but the term doesn't apply to just any physical attack, either. Two football players punching each other is not domestic violence.

Generally, for someone to be charged with domestic violence, the attacker must be in some type of relationship with the person attacked. The two can be married, engaged, dating, living together, current or former roommates or parents together of a child or children. Former spouses can also be charged with domestic violence, as can anyone with a blood or in-law connection, like a parent, grandparent, niece, nephew or stepchild.

Domestic Violence Includes a Range of Behaviors

When you think of domestic violence, it may call to mind a photo of someone who has been punched or beaten. But many states have a wide range of different domestic violence offenses, from provocative or insulting contact with a family member (a type of domestic violence in Illinois) to corporal injury resulting in traumatic injury.

Each state writes its own definition of the acts constituting domestic violence and also sets out the maximum punishment. Any crime carrying a maximum jail sentence of a year is a misdemeanor. If the maximum jail sentence is more than a year, the crime is a felony.

A Range of Domestic Violence Crimes

Some types of domestic violence are always misdemeanors and can never be charged as felonies. In California, spousal battery and violation of a restraining order are both considered domestic violence crimes, but are always charged as misdemeanors. On the other hand, the crime known as corporal injury on a spouse can be charged as a felony, with a punishment of two, three or four years in jail.

In New York, domestic violence can be a violation, a misdemeanor or a felony. A violation is also termed a petty offense and punishable by a maximum of 15 days in jail. Domestic violence involving harassment, verbal threats or physical contact that doesn't cause injury is a violation. Under New York law, if a domestic violence incident causes physical injury, it is charged as a misdemeanor. If an assault causes broken bones or other serious physical injury, it will be charged as a felony.

Multiple Convictions Increase Domestic Violence Penalties

In Arizona, domestic violence is not a separate crime. Rather, it is a charge that "enhances" other criminal charges. It can be added to a variety of charges including assault, threatening, trespass, kidnapping or intimidation. If it is proved that the underlying crime occurred in the course of a domestic relationship, the court must give the accused more serious penalties. For example, if someone is charged with aggravated assault and the enhancement charge of domestic violence is added, the crime becomes a felony, aggravated domestic violence. And a third conviction on a domestic violence charge is automatically treated as a felony in Arizona.

A first offense of domestic battery is charged as a misdemeanor in Illinois. However, unlike most first-offense misdemeanors in Illinois, the defendant cannot be given court supervision. Defendants given court supervision have their convictions expunged or sealed, an option a convicted domestic batterer does not have. An Illinois prosecutor can also charge domestic violence as a Class 4 felony if the defendant already was convicted of a domestic battery or violated a protective order.

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.

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