In Pennsylvania, domestic violence isn't a separate crime subject to its own sentencing guidelines. Whether or not someone's actions constitute domestic violence depends on the relationship between the accused and the accuser. Domestic violence occurs when:
- The parties belong to the same family or household members
- The parties are sexual or intimate partners
- The parties share biological parenthood
When a crime constitutes domestic violence, certain protections are afforded to the victims. Pursuant to 18 Pa. C.S. § 2711 (d), victims of domestic violence may petition the court to issue:
- A restraining order against the accused (known as a "Protection from Abuse" order)
- An order requiring the accused to leave the household
- An order that prohibits the accused from entering specific residences, schools, businesses, or places of employment
- An order affecting custody and visitation of minor children
- An order requiring the accused to pay child support
While these orders affect the rights and actions of the accused, they don't constitute the criminal penalty associated with the underlying violent crime. Instead, those accused of domestic violence will be sentenced in accordance with the crime they committed, in addition to having to abide by the restrictive orders placed on them by the court.
Common Acts of Underlying Violence Associated with Domestic Violence Charges
Almost any act of violence can constitute domestic violence so long as the parties are considered to be in a domestic relationship as defined by law at 23 Pa. C.S. § 6102. Common crimes involved in domestic violence situations tend to include:
- Criminal Trespass
- Sexual assault
- Child abuse
The crimes listed above can be charged in varying degrees. For example, under 18 Pa. C.S. § 2701, a crime of simple assault is usually punishable as a second-degree misdemeanor. However, under 18 Pa. C.S. § 2702, a crime of aggravated assault is punishable as either a first-degree or second-degree felony. As you can probably guess, the severity of the punishment is related to how violent the act was. Simple assault involves intentionally, negligently, or recklessly causing bodily harm to another, while aggravated assault occurs when serious bodily harm is caused or intended. Further, aggravated assault can be charged if the injured party is a child under the age of six.
The way Pennsylvania law treats the severity of punishment is called “grading,” and most violent crimes are graded to varying degrees ranging from a third-degree misdemeanor (least serious) to a first-degree felony (most serious).
Classes of Offenses in Pennsylvania
18 Pa. C.S. § 106 describes the classes of offenses as follows:
Third-Degree Misdemeanor penalties:
- Up to $2,500 in fines and/or “a term of imprisonment, the maximum of which is not more than one year.”
Second-Degree Misdemeanor penalties:
- Up to $5,000 in fines and/or “a term of imprisonment, the maximum of which is not more than two years.”
First-Degree Misdemeanor penalties:
- Up to $10,000 in fines and/or “a term of imprisonment, the maximum of which is not more than five years.”
Third-Degree Felony penalties:
- Up to $15,000 in fines and/or “a term of imprisonment, the maximum of which is not more than seven years.”
Second-Degree Felony penalties:
- Up to $25,000 in fines and/or “a term of imprisonment, the maximum of which is not more than ten years.”
First-Degree Felony penalties:
- “Up to $25,000 in fines and/or “a term of imprisonment, the maximum of which is more than ten years.”
Classes of Offenses for Murder in Pennsylvania
When a homicide occurs during a domestic violence dispute, it could be considered first, second, or third-degree murder depending on the circumstances. Pennsylvania law also considers it to be a murder offense if an unborn child is lost during the commission of a crime. Pursuant to 18 Pa. C.S. § 2604, an individual could be charged with second-degree murder of an unborn child during the commission of a felonious act of aggravated assault in a domestic violence incident.
Penalties for an act of murder can include fines of up to $50,000 and a life sentence.
What to Expect During the Sentencing for a Domestic Violence Case in PA
If you are found guilty of one or more charges against you in your domestic violence trial, then the next step in the process is the sentencing hearing. At the sentencing hearing, the judge will sentence you for the crimes you were convicted of. Sometimes these determinations are at the discretion of the judge, but some crimes require mandatory minimum sentences. For example, the mandatory minimum sentence for aggravated assault can be two years imprisonment. The judge, however, cannot hand down a sentence that exceeds the statutory maximums.
In some cases, the judge will aggregate sentences for two or more crimes, allow for concurrent sentences to be served (at the same time), or require that sentences be served consecutively (one after the other).
Appealing Your Criminal Conviction and Sentence
After a conviction and sentencing, you have ten days to file a motion for reconsideration (asking the judge to reconsider the sentence) and 30 days to appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. If you've hired a skilled criminal defense attorney, they will be prepared to file the motion with the court. There are numerous reasons a conviction may occur even when you and your attorney have put forward a defense that should have returned better results. These reasons might include:
- Prosecution witnesses lied under oath
- The judge excluded information they shouldn't have
- The prosecution made unlawful arguments
- The jury didn't receive accurate instructions
- The sentence handed down is excessive or unjust
The appeals process is a critical component of the PA criminal justice system, and even when you feel all is lost, you still have options.
Hire a Domestic Violence Criminal Defense Lawyer in Pennsylvania
If you've been charged with conduct constituting domestic violence, you need to call a defense attorney immediately. Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm have extensive experience defending clients who've been accused of domestic violence in Pennsylvania. He and his dedicated team know you deserve an aggressive defense. To learn how Attorney Lento and the Lento Law Firm can help you today, call 888-535-3686.