Being accused of domestic violence in Pennsylvania is highly disruptive under any circumstances. Because your accuser by definition is someone with whom you have a close relationship (i.e., spouse, live-in relative, cohabitant, etc.), your relationship is suddenly fragmented--and if a Protection from Abuse (PFA) order is issued, you'll be barred from contact with that person. Your mind is likely filled with many questions, not the least of which are, will I be charged with a crime? And what penalties will I face if I'm convicted?
Not every allegation of domestic violence results in criminal charges, but when it happens, the penalties for conviction may be severe. Pennsylvania takes domestic violence and abuse seriously, so it is of the utmost importance to have a skilled domestic violence defense attorney in your corner to defend you. Attorney Joseph D. Lento can ensure your rights are protected and that you are given a fair chance to defend against the charges. To schedule a consultation, call 888-535-3686.
Criminal Domestic Violence in Pennsylvania
To understand the possible penalties for being convicted of a crime, you must first understand how domestic violence laws work in the State of Pennsylvania. By law, the only thing that differentiates an act of domestic violence from other similar crimes is the relationship between the accused and the alleged victim. If you assault someone you just met in a bar, for example, you've committed the crime of simple assault--but if you commit the same kind of assault against your spouse or someone you're dating, it's considered domestic violence. The primary differences are that you're more likely to be arrested on the word of the victim (the police are required to make an arrest on domestic violence calls) and that you may have a PFA filed against you if the victim sees you as a threat. But if you face criminal charges for assaulting your spouse, you'll be charged with assault, the same as if you assaulted someone in a bar--not a separate crime of domestic violence.
Penalties for Domestic Violence Crimes in Pennsylvania
The penalties you face if convicted of a crime of domestic violence will depend on the specific crime you're charged with, and its level of severity (e.g., misdemeanor or felony). The judge may also take into account other factors such as your prior criminal history, prior allegations of abuse, the severity of any injuries to the victim, etc. The maximum penalty will be based on the underlying crime on which the accusation of domestic abuse is based.
Depending on the crime and the severity of the offense, a person could face the following penalties for domestic violence based on how the crime is charged. The standard maximum penalties are as follows, from least severe to most severe.
Third Degree Misdemeanor Offenses
Examples of domestic violence third-degree misdemeanors include harassment, cyber harassment.
- Maximum Fine – $2,500
- Maximum Sentence – 1 year in jail
Second Degree Misdemeanor Offenses
Examples include simple assault (the most common type of domestic violence), unlawful dissemination of intimate image ("revenge porn"), strangulation, false imprisonment.
- Maximum Fine – $5,000
- Maximum Sentence – 2 years in prison
First Degree Misdemeanor Offenses
Examples include stalking, terroristic threats, unlawful restraint.
- Maximum Fine – $10,000
- Maximum Sentence – 5 years in prison
Third Degree Felony Offenses
Examples include criminal trespass, false imprisonment, criminal mischief (damaging one's property over $5000 in value), interference with custody of children.
- Maximum Fine – $15,000
- Maximum Sentence – 7 years in prison
Second Degree Felony Offenses
Examples include sexual assault, aggravated assault, indecent assault.
- Maximum Fine – $25,000
- Maximum Sentence – 10 years in prison
First Degree Felony
Examples include kidnapping, rape, murder.
- Maximum Fine – $25,000
- Maximum Sentence – 20 years in prison
Aggravating and Mitigating Factors
The maximum penalties listed above are the general standard for each of these levels of domestic violence crimes—but they aren't set in stone. Judges have the ability to consider mitigating factors when determining a sentence. By the same token, the law also calls for enhanced sentencing when certain aggravating factors exist. Thus, if the judge has sufficient reason to exert leniency based on mitigating factors, the court may impose a lesser sentence than the maximum. However, if the crime qualifies for enhancements, the penalties may be greater--whether in the form of upgrading the level of your offense or by the judge adding enhanced sentencing.
As a general rule of thumb, for example, if you have prior convictions for domestic abuse, you can expect your criminal charges to be upgraded by at least one degree. For instance, if this is your second offense of assaulting your partner, you will likely be charged with a first-degree misdemeanor rather than a second-degree misdemeanor--including the added penalties if you're convicted.
The court may consider any of the following as an aggravating factor resulting in more severe penalties:
- If you have prior domestic violence convictions
- If a child was present during the offense
- If the victim was pregnant at the time of the offense
- If a deadly weapon was used
- If the victim sustained serious bodily injuries from the offense
The court may also consider any of the following as a mitigating factor in domestic violence cases, resulting in lighter sentences:
- If you have no prior domestic violence convictions or arrests
- If you took active steps to seek counseling or treatment for yourself after the offense occurred
- If you have mental or emotional issues from being a prior victim of abuse
- If the evidence shows the victim is partly culpable for what happened (e.g., provocation, exaggeration)
- If you show remorse for your actions
- If you cooperated with law enforcement during the investigation into the offense
The court will also take into account the victim's wishes when deciding on an appropriate sentence. In many cases, the victim does not want to see the defendant go to jail and may request leniency from the court. While this is not a guarantee that the sentence will be lighter, it is something that the judge may consider.
While the court may sometimes show leniency to defendants who are cooperative and remorseful, you can see by the possible penalties above that being accused of domestic violence at any level is something to be taken seriously. Don't make the mistake of underestimating the severity of your charges or the possibility of harsh sentencing. Your best hope of a favorable outcome is to hire an experienced, compassionate criminal defense attorney who understands domestic violence law in Pennsylvania.
Call the Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686 to see how we can help.