Spousal Abuse Charges

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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Spousal abuse occurs when one spouse commits an assault against the other spouse. Instead of a specific spousal abuse charge, many states incorporate spousal abuse into their assault family violence statutes. Regardless of the term used, spousal abuse is considered an assaultive offense which can have multiple long-term consequences. Read on to learn more about spousal abuse, the available defenses, and possible consequences of a spousal abuse conviction.

What is Spousal Abuse?

As mentioned, spousal abuse is a category of assaultive offenses where one spouse assaults another spouse. Each state has its own title for spousal abuse which can include assault family violence, domestic battery, or domestic family violence. Even though the title may be different, the basic elements are the same.

The first element of any spousal abuse charge is proving that the defendant had a spousal relationship with the victim. Some states require proof of a formal, legal marriage to support a spousal abuse charge. Others permit the charge for informal marriages or assaults involving ex-spouses. Some states do not recognize marriages of domestic partners or same-sex marriages, so spousal abuse charges in these situations will turn on the charging state’s definition of marriage.

The second element of a spousal abuse charge is proving that the victim spouse was abused or assaulted. This component will also vary by state. Some require proof of an actual injury that resulted from an assault before a spousal charge can be filed. Other states will consider threats of violence, even without evidence of an actual injury, as spousal abuse.

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Defenses to Spousal Abuse Charge

Because spousal abuse is an assault type charge, the same defenses for an assault are available for a spousal abuse charge including self-defense and mutual combat. In the context of spousal abuse charges, many defendants demonstrate the falsity of charges by presenting evidence on the conspicuous timing of certain charges. For example, a victim spouse suddenly decides to file spousal abuse charges one week before a hearing on temporary child custody matters.

The next defensive strategy is to contest the nature of the relationship. Since spousal abuse is predicated on the existence of a marriage, informal marriage, or prior relationship, a potential defense is to show that the parties were not married at the time of the assault or that an extended period of time has passed such that the spousal abuse charge should not apply. Even though a defendant may still be found guilty of an assault charge, the potential punishment range is reduced by the deletion of the spousal element. Depending on the nature of the allegations, this reduction in charges can be the sole difference in a misdemeanor versus a felony punishment range.

Potential Consequences of a Spousal Abuse Conviction

Spousal abuse can carry misdemeanor and felony punishment ranges. If a defendant has never been convicted of an offense, then the first spousal abuse conviction will usually only result in a misdemeanor punishment. A misdemeanor punishment can involve jail time up to one year. It can also include a term of probation ranging from six months to two years. Often, judges will include provisions in the terms and conditions of a probation order similar to a protective order. A defendant is ordered to refrain from any contact or certain types of contact with the victim spouse.

If a defendant has a criminal history of spousal abuse, then a charge can be enhanced to a felony level offense. The first type of elevation is through prior convictions. A defendant previously convicted of a misdemeanor spousal abuse charge can have his sentence enhanced by a prior conviction. The second type of elevation is through charges. If a defendant commits several acts of spousal abuse over a given time period, then the charges can be pulled together into one indictment for continuous spousal abuse.

A charge can also be enhanced by the circumstances of the assault. Some states will enhance a spousal abuse charge to a felony if the use of a weapon or choking is included in the allegation. Either type of enhancement will bump the punishment range to a felony level offense ranging from two years to ten years in prison. A defendant can also make an application for probation. If the request for probation is granted, the court may impose many of the same requirements discussed above included that defendant complete anger management courses, a batterer’s intervention program, and any other type of counseling that could assist in the rehabilitation of the defendant.

Other Consequences of Spousal Abuse

Potential consequences are not limited to criminal sentences. Some spousal abuse charges only result in the filing and granting of a protective order. For a defendant, this may or may not be the best resolution. Federal statutes and some states prohibit persons who have a protective order entered against them from possessing a firearm. If a defendant is in the country illegally or is in the middle of any immigration process, then a finding of spousal abuse in a written court document can result in a defendant spouse’s deportation.

A conviction or entry of protective order can have additional effects on any divorce proceedings. Not all states permit the award of alimony or spousal support, but those that do, authorize the award of spousal support when a defendant has been convicted of domestic abuse or a protective order has been entered. Alternatively, the divorce court can punish a defendant monetarily by giving the victim spouse a larger share of the community estate.

Even when charged as a misdemeanor, spousal abuse can carry severe potential penalties range from ending a career to serving a lengthy time in prison. Some states will revoke certain professional licenses after an assault conviction. Before a defendant accepts a plea, he should understand all of the collateral consequences of a spousal abuse conviction in his state. A family law and criminal law attorney can assist in the handling of charges to minimize the short and long-term impacts of a spousal abuse conviction.

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