In 2022, there were more than 1,370,440 cases of domestic violence in the US. Yet only 53.8% of them led to a police report. Although domestic violence can be a felony or a misdemeanor, it depends on the case factors and the repeat nature of the crime. In this article, we will look at what makes domestic violence a felony and what kind of penalties you should expect. So let’s get started!

Quick Facts: Is Domestic Violence a Felony?

  • Domestic violence can be a felony if the victim suffers serious bodily harm, the accused uses a weapon, sexual assault, hurts children or the elderly, or has done it before.
  • Domestic violence can be a misdemeanor for less severe acts of abuse (emotional or economic) or first-time offenses.
  • If it's a misdemeanor, the person might get up to 1 year in jail, have to pay about $1,000 and go to counseling.
  • For a felony, the punishments are tougher: up to 10 years in prison, fines over $10,000, 2-3 years of probation, and mandatory counseling. It can also affect their job, housing, and rights, like voting or owning a gun, and might lead to a restraining order.

Domestic Violence Misdemeanor and Felony Basics

To start with, let’s look at domestic violence definition and what are the aggravating factors in these cases.


What is Domestic Violence?

Domestic violence is abusive behavior in a relationship, aimed to gain or maintain control over an intimate partner. It includes physical, sexual, emotional, economic, psychological, and technological abuse.

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It can manifest in many ways, such as

Physical assault

Involves physical harm or the threat. This can include hitting, slapping, choking, or using weapons.

Sexual coercion

Involves forcing a partner to engage in sexual acts against their will, using coercion, threats, or physical force.

Emotional manipulation

This type of abuse involves tactics to undermine an individual's sense of self-worth or emotional well-being. It includes verbal abuse, manipulation, intimidation, and isolation.

Economic control

This occurs when the abuser controls the victim's financial resources. They hinder their ability to support themselves and force them to depend on the abuser.

Technological Abuse

Includes using technology to harass, stalk, or control a partner. This can be through constant texting, social media monitoring, or using GPS to track their movements.

Perpetrators use these actions to intimidate, manipulate, injure, or exert control over their intimate partners. Under 18 U.S.C. § 921, an “intimate partner” is

  • a spouse;
  • a former spouse;
  • an individual who is a parent of a child with the person, and/or
  • an individual who cohabitates or has cohabited with the person.

On average, almost 20 people per minute experience physical violence by an intimate partner in the US. This type of domestic abuse is one of the most common and is a frequent reason for police reports and felony charges. It can include injury, assault, sexual assault, and physical harm.

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The effects of domestic violence on victims are diverse:

Physical Injuries

From minor injuries to severe, long-term physical harm.

Mental Health Issues

Anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal thoughts.

Social Isolation

Victims often become isolated from friends and family, either through the actions of the abuser or from shame and fear.

Economic Hardships

Victims may face financial difficulties due to economic abuse or if they need to leave their homes to escape the violence.

All types of domestic abuse are illegal. Any of these causes can be grounds for misdemeanor or felony domestic violence.


What Makes Domestic Violence a Felony?

The court may classify domestic violence as a felony if

  • The victim suffered serious bodily harm.
  • The accused used a weapon during the attack. It can be firearms, knives, or any other object used with the intent to cause serious harm.
  • The case involves sexual assault or attempted murder.
  • The defendant committed an attack on particularly vulnerable persons, such as children or the elderly.
  • The person is a repeat offender of domestic violence.

Of course, it is impossible to say in advance whether such domestic violence is a felony or a misdemeanor. But these factors are aggravating, so the court is more likely to consider this case as a felony.

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Misdemeanor vs Felony Domestic Violence Charges

Now, we’ll explore the differences between misdemeanor and felony domestic violence convictions. Keep reading for an in-depth look at the penalties and legal pathways related to this issue.

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Misdemeanor Domestic Violence Charges

Under U.S. law, domestic violence is a misdemeanor when there are less severe acts of abuse or first-time offenses. It includes actions like:

  • Instances where the physical harm is not life-threatening or doesn't result in serious injury.
  • Non-physical forms of abuse, including threats and emotional manipulation.
  • First-time offense.

In cases of misdemeanor domestic violence, the penalties often include up to 1 year in jail, around $1,000 in fines, and mandatory counseling programs for 1-2 years. It is worth noting that the victim may also claim compensation for emotional distress, which will entail extra costs besides the fees.


Felony Domestic Abuse Penalties

Felony DV charge is more serious and carries stiffer penalties:

Prison Sentences

Felony domestic violence jail time is up to 10 years in prison.

Domestic Violence Fines

Fees for felony charges can exceed $10,000.


The court determines the length on an individual basis — approximately 3 years with close monitoring.

Permanent Record Implications

Long-term effects on employment opportunities, housing, and civil rights, such as the right to vote or own firearms.

Mandatory Treatment Programs

Extensive counseling or rehabilitation programs.

Beyond fines and jail time, domestic violence felony impacts child custody. The accused may receive a restraining order prohibiting them from contact with the victim, and in some cases, with their children. Also, non-citizens may face deportation or denial of naturalization. Courts may order offenders to pay restitution to the victim for medical expenses, counseling, and other related costs.

Domestic Violence Laws

In the US, both federal and state laws regulate home abuse. They indicate that domestic violence is a crime and can be both a felony and a misdemeanor. Let’s take a closer look.


Federal Level

The key federal laws that provide legal grounds for domestic violence charges are

  • Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)
  • Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA)
  • Gun Control Act of 1968 (as amended by VAWA)

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Established in 1994, VAWA created and funded programs to protect and support victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. It also extended the legal protection to unmarried partners. This law includes funding for victim support services, legal aid, and law enforcement training. VAWA also allows for federal prosecution of interstate domestic violence and stalking.

Enacted in 1984, FVPSA is the primary federal funding source for domestic violence programs and services. This law provides funding for emergency shelters, crisis hotlines, and related help for victims and their children.

Gun Control Act restricts firearm possession among individuals convicted of felony domestic assault. This also applies to persons under restraining orders. It makes it unlawful for such individuals to own firearms.


State Level

In the United States, each state has its domestic violence or related criminal laws. They allow courts to give protective orders to keep abusers away from victims. In many states, police have the right to arrest a person if there is probable cause to believe that they have committed domestic violence. Let’s analyze the laws of a few states in more detail.


California Domestic Violence Penalties

California doesn’t have one specific law on domestic violence. But, there are some related criminal offenses, such as corporal injury under Penal Code 273.5. Here are misdemeanor DV penalties in California:

  • Incarceration: Up to 1 year in jail.
  • Fines: Can reach up to $2,000.

Battery without a visible injury, carrying a potential fine of up to $2,000 and/or 6 months in jail.

The spousal battery doesn’t require an injury to the victim but involves forceful or unwanted physical contact. Penalties can include up to a year in jail, a $2,000 fine, possible time in a batterer’s program for up to 1 year, and a $5,000 payment to a shelter.

Also, in California, there are mandatory domestic violence classes, loss of custody, restraining orders, and possible loss of gun rights for 10 years.

Domestic abuse felony penalties in California include:

  • Incarceration: Ranges from 1 to 4 years in prison.
  • Fines: For corporal injury, fines can reach up to $10,000.

Corporal injury charges as a “wobbler” offense can be either a misdemeanor or a felony. In cases of great bodily injury, there are potential extra prison time of 3-5 years, and up to 25 years to life for many felony strikes.


Texas Domestic Violence Penalties

The legal framework for domestic violence in Texas is outlined in Family Code § 71.004. For a first-time domestic violence charge, the offense is usually treated as a misdemeanor. A court can classify it as a Class A misdemeanor, with such penalties:

  • Incarceration: Up to 1 year in jail.
  • Fines: Up to $4,000.

If there are many convictions for domestic assault, the charge can escalate to a 3rd or 2nd-degree felony. Aggravated assault includes cases where the assault led to serious bodily harm or involved the use of a deadly weapon. The DV felony penalties include:

  • Incarceration: Up to 20 years in prison.
  • Fines: Up to $10,000.

A 3rd-degree felony also applies when there have been at least two assault charges against a family member within 12 months.


Florida Domestic Violence Penalties

Florida Statute 741.28 defines domestic violence as assault, battery, stalking, kidnapping, false imprisonment, or any criminal offense resulting in physical injury or death of one family by another household member. For misdemeanor domestic violence offenses, penalties may include

  • up to 1 year in jail;
  • mandatory participation in anger management classes;
  • payment of restitution;
  • community service;
  • restraining or no-contact orders.

Felony charges occur in more severe cases, such as those involving serious bodily harm or the use of a deadly weapon. This includes aggravated battery and assault. The penalties for felony domestic battery in Florida include:

  • Prison sentences: Up to 15 years for aggravated battery and up to 5 years for assault.
  • Fines: Up to $10,000.

Kidnapping in domestic violence cases is a 1st-degree felony, with up to 30 years or life imprisonment. Strangulation is a 3rd-degree felony, with penalties of up to 5 years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Also, in Florida, an arrest on domestic violence charges means that you cannot post bail until you see a judge (which can take up to 72 hours or more in some cases).

Looking for a divorce lawyer with a focus on domestic violence cases?

Check our top picks in Houston, Austin, San Diego, San Francisco, and Utah.

How to Defend Yourself Against Domestic Violence Charges?

If you’re charged with domestic violence, the first thing you should do is get a criminal defense lawyer. They will handle all communications, gather evidence, represent you in court, and negotiate on your behalf if necessary.

is domestic violence a felony defense

You should also gather any information that might help your case, like messages or emails that tell your side of the story. If anyone saw what happened or knew about your situation, they could also help by telling what they know.

Together with your lawyer, you’ll decide how to beat a domestic violence charge. There are a few ways to defend yourself:

  • If you didn't do it, show that the accusation is false.
  • If you were protecting yourself or someone else, that might be self-defense.
  • Sometimes, there's just not enough proof that you did anything wrong.
  • Evidence like receipts or messages can prove you have an alibi if you were somewhere else when it happened.

Your lawyer might talk about making a deal with the other side, especially if there’s a lot of evidence against you. This could mean a smaller punishment or a less serious charge.

Also, follow any protective orders or court directives to avoid extra legal complications. Sometimes, going to counseling or anger management classes can be a mitigating factor.


Thus, domestic violence is a felony if it involves weapons, children or the elderly, or the victim is seriously injured, or if the crime occurs on a repeated basis. If it is the first time or a lesser form of abusive behavior, it is likely to be a misdemeanor.

However, laws vary from state to state, so whether you are a victim or a defendant, you should consult a lawyer. They can help you figure out what to do next and protect your rights. Remember, whether domestic violence is a felony or a misdemeanor in your case, having a good lawyer can make a huge difference.

Frequently Asked Questions

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What percentage of domestic violence cases get dismissed in the USA?

It all depends on the type of charge. For example, for a serious sexual assault, there is only a 2% chance that the accused will not face any punishment, while for an aggravated assault, there is a 13% chance. Of course, the odds of dismissing a case with lighter charges increase, but most incidents don’t even go to trial (the percentage of domestic violence cases that are not reported to the police is 46.2% in 2022).

What is the sentence for domestic violence in America?

For misdemeanor domestic violence, the jail term is up to 1 year. However, for a felony, the average sentence is 6 years.

What constitutes felony domestic violence?

Felony domestic violence usually happens when someone causes serious injuries, uses a weapon, sexually abuses someone, harms children or the elderly, or repeatedly commits domestic violence. These severe actions make the crime a felony.

What is the maximum sentence for a domestic violence felony?

It depends on the state’s jurisdiction where the conviction takes place. However, on average, the maximum term is 10 years.

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William Green
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