Does Domestic Abuse Always Involve Physical Violence?

When most people think about domestic violence, they picture someone striking or assaulting their spouse. While this unfortunately is a common form of domestic abuse, there are also several other types of misconduct that constitute domestic violence under Massachusetts law. Below, we review how Massachusetts defines domestic abuse and how someone can face these serious charges without ever throwing a punch.

Who Can Be a Victim of Domestic Violence in Massachusetts?

Any family or household member can potentially be a victim of domestic abuse and is protected by the applicable laws. Someone can commit domestic violence against their spouse, ex-spouse, partner, ex-partner, roommate, ex-roommate, blood relative, marital relative, or someone they have children with. Domestic abuse rules will generally not apply if someone has not been a qualifying family or household member for five years or more.

What Types of Conduct Trigger Domestic Violence Charges?

Any type of physical assault or battery will likely be considered domestic abuse if it is committed against a family or household member. Other situations that do not involve physical violence may also lead to a domestic abuse arrest.

In Massachusetts, you can be charged with domestic violence if you:

  • Try to cause physical harm. Efforts to assault someone do not necessarily have to be successful to constitute domestic abuse. If someone attempts to swing a bat at a family member and misses, for example, they likely committed a form of domestic violence.
  • Force unwanted sexual contact. If someone frightens a family member or housemate into having involuntarily sexual relations, they have perpetrated domestic abuse in addition to the applicable sex crime.
  • Intimidate someone into believing they could be imminently harmed. Simply holding a bat, blocking a doorway, or raising your voice might convince someone that they are in immediate danger and are thus a victim of domestic violence.

How Intimidating Someone Can Lead to Domestic Violence Charges

Someone can be charged with and convicted of domestic violence without ever physically touching another person if the plaintiff reasonably believes they were in imminent danger. This can occur if a plaintiff feels sufficiently intimidated.

An act of intimidation does not have to be intentional to constitute domestic abuse. A defendant may be acting in a way that they feel is acceptable but is nonetheless interpreted as predatory and/or fear-inducing.

This can in some cases lead to false accusations: A partner involved in a spousal dispute might declare that they were the victim of domestic abuse as a result of a “perceived” (but in actuality nonexistent) threat to their safety. In other cases, a partner might legitimately believe they are in danger despite their spouse not intending to cause any harm whatsoever. In the absence of physical evidence, any of these situations can quickly become “he said, she said.”

When someone is arrested on these charges, the adjudication of their case will involve scrutinizing every element of their behavior during the alleged incident. Even the most innocuous of verbal or physical ticks could influence and bolster the prosecution’s arguments. Ideally, you will want to avoid being accused of domestic violence in the first place.

If you become involved in a verbal domestic dispute, you can take several proactive steps to protect yourself from a potential accusation, including:

  • Keeping your hands visible. You never want your family or household member to suspect you are reaching for a concealed weapon or a nearby object that could be used as a weapon. Avoid suddenly reaching into your jacket, holding your hands behind your back, or keeping your hands in your pockets.
  • Not holding any objects that could be viewed as a potential weapon. Someone may reasonably fear they are in imminent danger if you are holding a gun, blade, bat, or any other blunt object that has the potential to inflict serious harm – even if you have no intention of doing so. Even random objects could be viewed as nonconventional “weapons,” such as a fork. It is often best to eliminate the possibility of misinterpretation and not hold anything at all.
  • Not blocking any exits. Someone involved in a contentious dispute needs to believe that they can choose to depart the situation at any time without suffering physical consequences. Be mindful of each person’s position in the room where the dispute is occurring. If you are inadvertently standing in front of the only exit, consider moving to allow open access. If the argument escalates, consider verbally reminding the other parties involved that one or more of them can leave and they can resume the discussion when everyone has calmed down. You want to avoid a situation where someone thinks they cannot leave but is too afraid to say it.
  • Controlling your volume. In some cases, law enforcement will respond to reports of domestic altercations when neighbors hear a prolonged, noisy argument. Raising your voice – even if you are not yelling or shouting – can also be interpreted as threatening and/or a precursor to violent action. Try to reduce your volume wherever possible.
  • Avoiding outbursts. Screaming with rage, punching a wall, or throwing an object are all alarming actions that could lead someone to believe they may be in immediate danger. While disputes with family or household members can be immensely frustrating, it is critical that you maintain composure and avoid any brash actions that are violent or incendiary – even if they are not directed toward any particular person.

Penalties for Domestic Violence in Massachusetts

The circumstances of a domestic violence case will determine how someone is charged. Domestic abuse is typically charged as a form of “assault and battery” in Massachusetts. A conviction can result in up to 2.5 years of incarceration and/or up to $5,000 in fines.

Potential penalties increase if a “dangerous weapon” is involved. A dangerous weapon does not necessarily have to be a firearm or blade. A nonconventional object that is used as a weapon – say, a fireplace poker or rolling pin – may be considered a dangerous weapon in the eyes of the court. A conviction in this situation can lead to up to 10 years in prison. However, prosecutors will generally only seek these enhanced charges and sentences when a victim has been substantially injured and/or the defendant has a long history of domestic abuse.

In cases where no physical harm has been rendered, defendants can often avoid jail time, even if convicted. This is especially true if a defendant has little to no prior criminal history. Some settlements or convictions in these scenarios and will lead to probation in lieu of incarceration. Probation might involve completing counseling and anger management courses.

Our criminal defense attorneys are not afraid to go to trial and will fight to secure the best possible outcome in your case. We have decades of combined legal experience and can provide you with the seasoned representation you need when you have been accused of domestic abuse or any other type of violent crime.

Contact us online or call (617) 500-0252 to schedule a free initial consultation.

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