State Domestic Violence Laws

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

There is a lot of variance among state domestic violence laws. These differences range from the very definition of domestic abuse -- whether abuse must be physical or whether it also can be emotional, psychological, or financial -- to the requirements under mandatory reporting laws. For example, in some states, medical professionals may have to report suspected abuse to the police. This is important because many women choose not to receive medical care if they know that their abuser will get in trouble.

Because of these significant differences, the whole process of escaping a domestic violence situation depends on the state in which you live. The following article will help you understand your state domestic violence laws and how they differ.

Arrest Policies

State domestic violence laws tend to differ quite a bit in their arrest policies. The majority of states have adopted preferred arrest policies that require police to either arrest one or both parties at the scene, or to write a report justifying why an arrest is not made. Some states have even adopted mandatory arrest policies requiring that an officer make an arrest during a domestic violence situation, but only if the domestic violence meets certain criteria.

In states with mandatory arrest policies, police are encouraged not to leave the scene without making an arrest. Mandatory arrest policies are generally safer for the victim because, if the abuser isn’t arrested, he or she may escalate the violence against the victim as punishment for having contacted the authorities.

The following are examples of state arrest policies for domestic violence complaints:

  • California - Officer is encouraged to arrest where there's probable cause; must arrest for violations of domestic violence protective order; dual arrests are discouraged (but not prohibited); officer shall make reasonable effort to identity primary aggressor.
  • New York - Officer must arrest the perpetrator either when there's probable cause that they've committed a felony against a member of the household or when a protective order has been violated.
  • North Carolina - Officer may arrest the perpetrator when there's probably cause that they've committed a felony; a misdemeanor and they may cause injury or property damage unless they're arrested; or they've committed one of a specific list of misdemeanors against a household member.

Mandatory Reporting

Mandatory reporting laws are widespread in the United States. Domestic violence mandatory reporting requires that a medical professional report to the police when they know or reasonably suspect that a patient has been injured as a result of domestic abuse. The details of mandatory reporting laws are quite distinct between states, however.

In California, for example, counselors and psychologists are not subject to mandatory reporting. Mandatory reporting applies only to medical professionals who have provided medical services for physical conditions. This is to encourage victims to attend counseling sessions for their mental health, even if they’re not ready to tell the police about the abuse.

It’s important that this distinction is made, because in California, medical professionals are subject to criminal punishment if they fail to report abuse. What this means is that, if a victim is abused and goes to the hospital to treat the injuries, the physician absolutely must report the suspected abuse. The victim won’t be left in the dark, however. Federal law requires that the medical professional alert the patient if a mandatory report will be sent out (with exceptions). That way the victim can make plans to avoid their abuser if they fear further violence.

Only two states, New Jersey and Wyoming, don't mandate that medical professionals report, but that’s because they have even broader laws. In both states, any person who knows or reasonably suspects domestic abuse is required to report the abuse to police.

Terminating a Lease Early: The Domestic Violence Exception

Much of the difficulty in escaping domestic violence is due to the fact that most victims share their lives with their abusers. They share the same home, they often share their finances, and frequently, they share a family.

Consider the shared home. If a victim reports domestic violence to the authorities, and the abuser is arrested, it’s not a guarantee that the abuser will be found guilty and convicted. Abusers who return to their homes turn to violence to take revenge on the victim. It’s therefore important that the victim look for other living arrangements.

The good news is that, many state domestic violence laws (such as in New York, New Jersey, and California) allow victims of domestic violence to terminate their lease early without having to pay the rest of the lease. Keep in mind that you need to have either a police report documenting the abuse or a restraining order against your abuser, in order to make use of early lease termination.

Get a Legal Help Understanding Your State's Domestic Violence Laws

Escaping domestic violence is a long, difficult process that demands a great deal of courage from the victim. Victims of domestic violence often experience isolation, but if you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence they can get professional assistance determining their options. Contact an experienced local family law attorney to learn how the law can help you regain your independence.

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