Practical Implications of Current Domestic Violence Research: For Law Enforcement, Prosecutors and Judges

Published June 2009

Chapter 2. Reporting and Arrests

Section 7 — What kinds of domestic violence are reported to law enforcement and prosecuted?

Notwithstanding varying numbers and types of crimes that constitute domestic violence in state codes and the U.S. Code, almost two-thirds to three-quarters of domestic violence cited in law enforcement incident reports are for assaults. [23, 68, 120, 196, 228] Although prosecutors screen cases, a study of domestic violence prosecutions in California, Oregon, Nebraska and Washington found that assaults constituted 59 to 81 percent of all prosecuted domestic violence cases. [196]

The percentage of felony assaults varies widely, reflecting specific state felony enhancement statutes. The highest percentage of felony assault domestic violence charges documented (41 percent) is in California, where injurious domestic assaults are classified as felonies. [228] However, most studies find much smaller percentages of felony assault charges — for instance, 13.7 percent in Charlotte, N.C. [68], and only 5.5 percent in Massachusetts [23] — as most physical injuries are minor and most cases do not involve the use of weapons.

These studies accord with the findings of the NCVS. [27] The NVCS, based on victim self-reports, not police characterizations, found simple assaults against female intimate partners to be more than four times greater (4.4) than aggravated assaults in 2005. Most assaults (80.5 percent) did not involve weapons. [27]

Implications for Law Enforcement

If the ratio of arrest reports for lesser offenses (such as disorderly conduct or breach of the peace) is significantly greater than that for assaults, it may indicate that patrol officers are not correctly identifying or assessing the underlying criminal behavior. Additional training or supervision may be required. (Research basis: Numerous observational studies from across the country as well as findings of national victim surveys, 1993-2004.)

Implications for Prosecutors

If the ratio of arrest reports for lesser offenses (such as disorderly conduct or breach of the peace) is significantly greater than that for assaults, it may indicate that local law enforcement is not correctly identifying the underlying criminal behavior. Prosecutors must work with officers to correctly determine the necessary elements of specific domestic violence crimes, including assault, stalking and marital rape. Alternatively, if the majority of domestic assaults are routinely pled down to lesser offenses by prosecutors, prosecutors may be endangering victims as well as failing to hold abusers fully accountable for their violence. Federal misdemeanor firearm prohibitions — 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(9), for example — only apply to assault convictions. Where enhancement statutes are available, prosecutors should carefully review prior convictions to charge defendants as repeat offenders where appropriate. (Research basis: Numerous observational studies from across the country as well as findings of national victim surveys, 1993-2004.)

Implications for Judges

Reducing assault charges to nonassault charges allows convicted abusers to retain firearms otherwise prohibited pursuant to federal law, 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(9), which prohibits abusers convicted of misdemeanor assaults from possessing firearms or ammunition. Qualifying offenses must include the use or attempted use of physical force or the threatened use of a deadly weapon. Judges can facilitate application of the federal prohibition by making specific findings of these necessary elements required in the federal law. (Research basis: Numerous observational studies from across the country as well as findings of national victim surveys, 1993-2004.)

Date Created: June 5, 2009