Incidents of domestic violence continue to be a problem across the U.S., as roughly 33% of women and 25% of men have experienced violence involving a dating or relationship partner. Pennsylvania is slightly above the national average, as 38% of women and 28% of men have been victimized. In many instances of domestic violence, the accused individual claims to have been acting in self-defense. Those involved in these incidents are encouraged to promptly contact a knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer, as establishing that the use of force was legally justified can be challenging.
Defining Domestic Violence in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania law defines domestic violence as criminal acts that occur among “family or household members, sexual or intimate partners or persons who share biological parenthood.” Domestic violence may occur in several ways including:
- Acts committed intentionally or recklessly that result in bodily harm, severe bodily injury, rape, forced intercourse, or sexual assault that may or may not involve a lethal weapon
- The abuser may create a fearful atmosphere that poses a threat of bodily harm, such as stalking an individual
- It may be demonstrated through false imprisonment
- May include physical or sexually-oriented abuse of minor children
Criminal Charges of Domestic Violence in Pennsylvania
The Pennsylvania statutes do not specifically contain a “domestic violence” charge, rather these cases are brought as either a misdemeanor or felony offenses related to violence. Some of the common offenses that apply to these cases are assault, stalking, recklessly endangering, strangulation, and others.
The Severity of the Offenses
Depending on the circumstances involved, the severity of a crime of domestic violence varies. The following chart illustrates the maximum penalties that may be imposed according to Pennsylvania law:
Level of Offense
1st Degree Felony
2nd Degree Felony
3rd Degree Felony
1st Degree Misdemeanor
2nd Degree Misdemeanor
3rd Degree Misdemeanor
Additional Potentially Adverse Consequences
Those who are accused of domestic violence often recognize that a stigma exists regarding these offenses. Other collateral consequences commonly occur to those facing these accusations. A defendant may miss a considerable amount of work if incarcerated after being arrested when attending hearings related to protective orders, and other required court appearances.
The accused may also notice that their reputation is harmed personally and/or professionally. Rumors and misinformation are often rapidly circulated in the local news, by social media, and word-of-mouth. In some cases, even friends or family members may feel inclined to distance themselves from an alleged abuser.
Understanding Laws Regarding Self-Defense in Pennsylvania
Self-defense is an affirmative defense in crimes of violence, which is often are brought in domestic violence cases. Self-defense is one type of justification that may be employed under specific circumstances. Justification is based on the idea that the loss or harm “sought to be avoided is greater than that sought to be prevented.”
The law allows a party to use force when the individual believes that it is necessary to protect themselves. Further, the use of force can be justified because another person is using unlawful force at the time. This also may apply to the use of force for the protection of a third-party.
The law allows for the use of force to protect others under the same justification. This applies when an individual believes that the other party would be justified to defend or protect themselves, thus an intervention and use of force is necessary and appropriate.
Understanding the Castle Doctrine
The Pennsylvania General Assembly has affirmed that it is appropriate for citizens that abide by the law to act for their protection and the protection of their family when necessary against trespassers and aggressors. The law explains that an individual should not be subject to criminal prosecution or civil liability from protecting themselves when encountered by an attacker who intrudes. This law is based on the Castle Doctrine that has long existed under common law. The law explains that citizens of the state or visitors have the right to “remain unmolested within their homes or vehicles.”
People cannot be forced to “surrender his or her safety to a criminal” or be forced to “needlessly retreat” when attacked or intruded upon. The Constitution of Pennsylvania also gives citizens the right to take arms to defend themselves when the circumstances are justifiable. State law does specify that using deadly force is only appropriate when it can reasonably be assumed that the individual is facing “imminent death or injury.”
The Burden of Proof
To prevail in any criminal matter, the prosecution (plaintiff) must prove their case by a “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard. Your legal representation will generally seek to present evidence that suggests the use of force was justifiable. A self-defense strategy is not intended to deny that the accused used force, but rather that their response was justified based on the circumstances.
Other Potential Defenses
The charges may be defended based on a lack of any intention to commit the crime. For example, to be convicted of a simple assault, it must be proven that the perpetrator either intentionally attempting to cause bodily harm or recklessly causing harm.
The defense may contend that a “serious bodily injury” did not occur. State law defines bodily injury as an “impairment of physical condition or substantial pain.” Serious bodily injury constitutes a “substantial risk of death” or some “permanent disfigurement” or loss of function. Your attorney may review the medical records or produce evidence from an expert to determine the extent of the alleged victim's injury.
Many other defenses and strategies may be considered based on individual circumstances. An experienced defense attorney may challenge the credibility of the accuser or potentially engage in negotiations to substantially reduce the severity of the charges.
Seasoned Defense Lawyer Represents Clients in Domestic Violence Cases
Have you been arrested a charged with a crime associated with an incident of domestic violence? Attorney Joseph D. Lento has spent many years representing clients in these types of cases and will ensure your rights are protected and formulate an effective strategy of defense. Contact the office today at (888) 535-3686.