Domestic violence is often defined as violent physical contact by one person with another person with whom they are in a familial relationship. The victim might also be a member of a common household or a person in a dating relationship with the abuser.
The definition includes spousal abuse. It often occurs in a marriage, whether legal or common law, or in other intimate relationships between partners who might be only dating and not yet formally married.
However, domestic violence as a broader term can also include abuse of people in other familial relationships, including siblings, elderly parents, children, and other relatives. In addition, many experts define “domestic violence” as verbal, emotional, psychological, and physical abuse. But the acts that may constitute domestic violence from the criminal law perspective would probably involve physical violence or the threat of physical violence. This is not the case, however, in every state.
Congress has also passed changes to the Gun Control Act, making it a federal crime in certain situations for people convicted of domestic abuse or violence to possess firearms. State and local law enforcement authorities handle the majority of domestic violence cases. In some cases, however, federal laws can offer a course of action for preventing certain types of domestic violence.
For example, under the federal Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban of 1996, an amendment to the federal Gun Control Act, people convicted of a misdemeanor or felony domestic violence are not allowed to possess firearms. This law makes it a federal felony criminal offense for a person convicted of such a crime to possess, ship, or transport guns or ammunition in interstate commerce.
If a person is convicted of a federal felony, they can be sentenced to a term of imprisonment for up to 10 years and payment of a fine of up to $250,000 for possession of a firearm.
The Gun Control Act defines a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” as any state or federal misdemeanor that has as one of its elements any of the following:
- The use or attempt to use physical force on a victim;
- Communication of a threat to use a deadly weapon;
- When it is committed by a current or former spouse, parent, or guardian of the victim; or
- When it is committed by a person with whom the victim shares a child, by a person who is cohabiting with or has cohabited with the victim as a spouse, parent, or guardian, or by a person who is in a position similar to that of a spouse, parent, or guardian of the victim.
The U.S. Supreme Court was recently asked to lift the ban on firearms for misdemeanor convictions of domestic violence unless there was actual proof that the crime involved violent acts or caused injury. However, the Court refused to make this change to the law. This means there does not have to be proof that the misdemeanor crime involved violent acts or caused injury.
Of course, the laws regarding domestic violence vary in different states. About 38 states provide definitions of domestic violence in their criminal codes. The definitions in some states may include such crimes as stalking, bullying, and, in some cases, abuse that may not be physical, such as emotional abuse. Often the victims of this type of abuse are elderly.
For example, in the state of Alabama, domestic abuse is defined by reference to other criminal laws, such as the following:
- The attempt to commit any of the crimes defined in Alabama law as “abuse.”
- The attempt to commit a crime is committing any overt act towards the commission of a crime with the intent to commit the crime;
- Child abuse;
- Criminal coercion;
- Criminal trespass: Criminal trespass in Alabama is defined as entering or remaining in the residence or on the premises of another person after having been warned not to do so, either orally or in writing, by the owner of the premises or another person who is authorized to issue such a warning;
- Menacing: Menacing is usually defined as displaying a weapon with the intent of placing another person in fear of imminent physical injury or death;
- Other conduct: Any other conduct directed toward a victim covered by the criminal code punishable as a criminal act under the laws of the state of Alabama;
- Reckless endangerment;
- Sexual abuse;
- Theft: Theft is defined as intentionally obtaining or exerting unauthorized control or obtaining control by deception over property owned by or jointly owned by the perpetrator and another person;
- False imprisonment.
Laws addressing domestic violence have language devoted to defining the relationships between abuser and victim that qualify as “domestic” for domestic violence. To summarize, the relationships are usually those of people who cohabit in a residence, cohabited formerly, are in a dating relationship, or are family members.
Generally, the crimes identified in Alabama law as constituting domestic violence qualify as domestic violence if the perpetrator and the victim are related as defined in the law, e.g., usually as members of a family relationship, living together, or dating.
Some states also have addressed the issue of children witnessing domestic violence as a special type of qualifying crime, or it is treated as an aggravating circumstance when the perpetrator is sentenced. Some states make it a separate criminal offense that may be charged.
About eight states consider an act of domestic violence committed in the presence of a child as an “aggravating circumstance” in their sentencing guidelines. The presence of this factor usually leads to a longer jail term, an increased fine, or both. An additional five states do not call it an “aggravating circumstance,” but require more severe penalties if the facts of the criminal conduct show that children were witnesses to it. In five states, committing domestic violence in the presence of a child is a separate crime that may be charged separately.
Often the term domestic abuse refers to an ongoing and recurring pattern of abuse, although it can also include a one-time incident. Domestic violence may involve other aspects, such as psychological or emotional abuse, but acts that constitute these types of abuse may not violate criminal laws. Domestic violence is sometimes referred to as “spousal abuse” because it often involves married couples.
As with many other family law issues, domestic violence cases may involve the interaction of several different agencies and authorities, including:
- Law enforcement authorities;
- Psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and other therapists.
In some cases, employers may also become involved, especially if the domestic abuse begins to affect the performance of the abuser or the victim in the context of their employment.