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Home / Articles / Legal / What Happens When You Press Charges for Domestic Violence?

What Happens When You Press Charges for Domestic Violence?

Learn more about pressing charges for domestic violence. Keep in mind, state laws and local practices vary

an abuser is arrested by police

If a partner has been abusive toward you, it may not be up to you to decide whether to press charges. Once anyone has called the police with a report of domestic abuse, police come to the site of the alleged incident. Police can always make an arrest where they believe that there is probable cause that a crime has been committed. Some states leave the decision to arrest up to the discretion of the officer, whereas others require mandatory arrest if there is probable cause to believe there was an injury or a violation of an order or protection, among other crimes. (Please note: abusers increasingly engage in actions to try to get victims arrested, instead of themselves. You can take steps to make sure officers see who is the primary aggressor).

Once someone has been detained for domestic violence, they may be held for a given time, depending on state law, or released on bail. (Look here for information on what happens following a domestic violence arrest). Over time, the district attorney will gather evidence and decide what charges to file, if any. The district attorney is the final decision-maker as to whether charges will be filed. The evidence may include records from 911 calls, medical visits, testimony from the victim and any witnesses or photographs of the crime scene. The district attorney’s decision about whether to press charges is based, in part, on the quality of the evidence collected.

Take Care of Yourself First

If you have been suffocatedstrangledsexually assaulted or may have sustained a concussion or other internal injuries from the abuser, seek medical attention. Your shock and adrenaline may initially mask pain from your injuries, and some severe and even fatal injuries take a while to develop. As such, the sooner you seek medical attention, the better.

In some situations, the case cannot proceed without your testimony. In others, district attorneys may decide to prosecute whether or not you cooperate. If you are legally married, in some situations you cannot be compelled to testify. Whatever you do, do not commit the crime of perjury by lying while testifying.

As a Victim, What Do I Do Legally?

Contact your local domestic violence agency and secure the assistance of a victim advocate. They can best help you understand your rights (such as whether or not to testify); get the services you may need (such as medical care, safe housing, an emergency order or protection, and counseling); develop a safety plan, and get the best response from the police and the legal system.

Not only does the legal system vary from state to state, but you may have additional factors to consider if you or the domestic abuser is an active military service member, in which case you have a variety of reporting options. If you or the abuser is Native American, or if the incident occurred on a reservation, you can learn about available support resources and legal options by contacting this hotline.

You may be hesitant to cooperate with the legal system for a range of reasons. Below, I list some of these, with brief responses:

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  • You love the person who has hurt you. (These feelings can be incredibly strong. Try to evaluate the true value of someone who has caused you harm, and remember, feelings do change over time.)
  • The abuser has sworn never to hurt you again. (Abusers rarely keep these promises. Even if they change, you are under no obligation to remain with or return to the person who hurt you. Saying they will do individual therapy, give up drinking, or just try to change is not the same as demonstrating change over time.)
  • The abuser is a parent to your children. (Someone who abuses their partner poses a risk to children. Additionally, if you do not protect your children from exposure to domestic violence, you may lose custody of them. And finally, if you are maimed or killed, or end up maiming or killing your abuser—this will hurt your children far more than having a parent with a criminal record.)
  • You mistrust the legal system to keep you safe. (This is a legitimate concern and varies with where you live. Develop a Safety Plan along with a domestic violence advocate to minimize your risk. Declining to hold an abuser responsible or returning to a situation of domestic abuse also puts you at risk).
  • You believe the legal system is unfair. (This is indisputable. However, until there are true alternatives, what are your options?)
  • You do not want to land anyone in prison. (Understandable. Two things to remember here—it’s the abuser’s actions that might land them in jail, and most domestic abusers serve little or no time in prison.)
  • The abuser has threatened you, or others have threatened you, if you cooperate. (Report these threats to law enforcement and the district attorney—this is witness tampering and may lead to additional charges.)
  • You are afraid to testify. (Testifying can be empowering and preparation helps. Additionally, the district attorney may proceed with charges regardless of what you decide. Testifying gives you can opportunity to tell your side of the story.)
  • You worry about child protective services. (Your best move is to demonstrate that you are protecting your children from exposure to domestic violence in every way you can.)

Ultimately, deciding about whether to contact the police and cooperate with a prosecution is up to you. Whether or not the district attorney will decide to press charges may not be up to you.