The Criminal Process in Domestic Abuse Cases

Authored By: Iowa Legal Aid


Any victim of a crime can file a criminal complaint against their assailant by contacting the police and making the complaint. A victim of domestic abuse has that same right. In the criminal context, the decision about whether someone is charged or what charges will be brought is up to the county attorney. The victim does not control the process. It is possible for the county attorney to continue to prosecute a case even if the victim decides later that they want the case dropped.

If the crime is domestic abuse assault, the Domestic Abuse Act requires certain things to happen in a criminal proceeding. This section describes what happens when an abuser is charged with domestic abuse assault.

Should I file a criminal complaint?

Some victims may be afraid to file criminal charges because they are afraid they will be hurt even more by the abuser. You must decide what is safest for you in your situation.

Some of the good reasons to file charges are:

•    A victim shows the court they are serious - At hearings to get protection orders or money damages for injuries, the fact that a victim filed criminal charges shows the court that they are serious.
•    Criminal charges can show a history of domestic abuse - The fact that criminal domestic abuse charges were brought against an abuser can be considered by a court in later custody actions involving children of the victim and the abuser.
•    A victim may be eligible for crime victim's compensation - If a crime is reported within 72 hours after it occurs, the victim may be able to get payment for expenses resulting from the criminal act under a program called "Crime Victim Assistance."
•    The abuser will be held accountable for their actions - The abuser may have to spend time in jail and will be ordered to attend a batterers' treatment program.

Some of the drawbacks to filing charges are:

•    Lack of control over proceedings - A victim may not feel they are in control of what happens in the criminal proceedings. This is because the County Attorney who prosecutes the case may want or need to take action which is different than what the victim wants.
•    Confronting the abuser - A victim may have to testify in Court against their abuser. County Attorneys must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that domestic abuse occurred. In most cases, the victim will be the main witness to what happened. Sometimes County Attorneys can call police officers who witnessed abuse, or use 911 emergency calls as evidence, but this type of evidence is not always available.
•    Increased danger - In some circumstances, a victim may believe they are in more danger from their abuser.

What happens if the police are called because of domestic abuse?

Even if you do not decide to file a criminal complaint, a police officer may file a complaint. This may happen if the police were called and arrested an abuser.

When an abuser has been arrested for domestic abuse, they will not be released from jail until they have appeared before a judge. The Judge decides whether the Defendant should be released from jail, and imposes conditions of release, such as whether the defendant must pay bail. The Judge must issue an order called a "no-contact order" which prohibits the Defendant from having any contact with the victim. This initial no-contact order remains in effect until the criminal proceeding against the Defendant is completed.

The County Attorney's office is responsible for prosecuting criminal cases. The County Attorney is required to make a number of decisions, such as what crime the Defendant should be charged with, whether to enter into a plea agreement with the Defendant, and what evidence to present at trial. Many times the victim will be the County Attorney's main witness. It is important for the victim to have contact with the County Attorney, and to discuss with the County Attorney any concerns or questions they may have.

What happens if an abuser is convicted of domestic abuse assault?

An abuser convicted of domestic abuse assault must serve at least 2 days in jail. This time must be served in one 48 hour period. The court cannot give the abuser a fine instead of the 2-day minimum sentence. However, the court can give the abuser both a fine and the 2-day minimum jail sentence. The penalties for domestic abuse assault are more severe if the abuser was convicted or got a deferred judgment for domestic abuse before in the past 12 years. Convictions or deferred judgments for similar offenses in other states are counted. Offenses committed upon other victims also count in determining if it is a subsequent offense. The court must also order a convicted abuser to take part in a batterers' treatment program. Even if the abuser gets a deferred judgment, the abuser must take part in such a program. The court must also make the no-contact order a year-long order. If the defendant pleads guilty or is convicted of domestic abuse, the no-contact order may be extended for up to five years.

A no-contact order can be extended for additional five-year periods if the defendant continues to be a threat to the safety of the victim or their immediate family. To get an extension, the county attorney or the victim makes application to the court prior to the expiration of the no-contact order.



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As you read this information, remember this article is not a substitute for legal advice.
Last Review and Update: Sep 22, 2022
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