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Legal Information: General

Domestic Violence Restraining Orders

Laws current as of
April 27, 2023

Please select your state in the drop-down menu above to read about the restraining order laws in your state. Also, in our Videos page, you can watch brief videos about protection orders. To read about the difference between a civil restraining order and a criminal restraining order, go to Overview of Civil vs. Criminal Law in the Court System Basics section. Below, you will find general information about restraining orders and violations of restraining orders.

Basic info about restraining orders

In general, domestic violence restraining order laws establish:

  • who can file for an order;
  • what protection or relief a person can get from such an order; and
  • how the order will be enforced.

While there are differences from state to state, all protective order statutes allow the judge to order one or more of the following provisions:

  1. Cease abuse- order the abuser to stop hurting or threatening you.
  2. Stay away- the majority of states’ orders can instruct the abuser to stay away from you, your home, your workplace, or your school.
  3. No contact- to prohibit all contact, whether by telephone, text messages, notes, mail, fax, email, through a third person, or delivery of flowers or gifts.
  4. Support- order the abuser to pay you temporary child support or continue to make mortgage payments on a home owned by both of you.
  5. Exclusive use- to award you sole use of a home or car owned by both of you.
  6. Restitution- to pay you for medical costs or property damage caused by the abuser, for example.
  7. Relinquish firearms- some courts might be able to order the abuser to turn over any guns, rifles and ammunition s/he has.
  8. Treatment- to attend a batterers’ treatment program, appear for regular drug tests, or start alcohol or drug abuse counseling.
  9. Custody, visitation, and child support- many jurisdictions also allow the court to make decisions about the care and safety of your children as part of your restraining order. Courts can order the abuser to stay away from and have no contact with your children’s doctors, daycare, school or after-school job and many courts can make temporary custody/visitation decisions. Some can even issue child support orders within the restraining order. You can also ask the court to order supervised visitation, or to specify a safe arrangement for transferring the children back and forth between you and the abuser.

When an abuser violates a restraining order

When the abuser does something that the court has ordered him/her not to do, or fails to do something the court has ordered him/her to do, s/he may have violated the order. In most states, the victim can ask the police or the court, or both, depending on the violation, to enforce the order.

When a victim contacts the police to report a restraining order violation, usually, the police will listen to the victim and look at any evidence s/he has. If they feel the order has been violated, the police may arrest the abuser or they could take other action. The police can generally enforce the stay away, no contact, cease abuse, exclusive use, and possibly custody provisions - those that need immediate response. If you are unable to call them when the violation occurs, they should take a report if you call them soon afterwards. In some cases, it might result in a misdemeanor or felony criminal conviction and punishment. In states that allow it, these types of violations can also later be addressed by the civil court, and it is often a good idea to bring them to the court’s attention.

Other violations are not easily enforced by the police, such as failure to pay support or attend treatment programs - those are better enforced by the court. If you file a “motion for contempt” in the court that issued the order, explaining how the abuser violated the order, the court will hold a hearing to determine if the facts prove that the abuser violated the order. In some places, the petition may need to be filed by the prosecutor. If the court finds a violation did occur, the judge will determine a penalty. Depending upon the laws of your jurisdiction and the nature of the violation, the penalty might be a finding of contempt, which could result in a fine, jail time or both. The violation might also be a reason for the order to be extended or modified in some way.

The difference between civil contempt and criminal contempt

When a person violates a protection order, s/he might be held in civil contempt or criminal contempt. There are different standards and possible outcomes for each.

Civil Contempt
When a person is facing civil contempt, usually it means that the judge will issue another court order that tries to make the person follow the original protection order. Often times, the judge will include a punishment (“sanctions”) or other provisions that do not include imprisonment. For example, a judge might take away a person’s license, change provisions of a protection order so that they are more restrictive, or threaten to escalate the case to a criminal court if the order is not followed. It is easier to prove civil contempt than it is to prove criminal contempt because the standard of proof in civil cases is usually “preponderance of the evidence” as opposed to “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Preponderance of the evidence means the judge has to think it is more likely than not that a violation occurred.

Criminal Contempt
When a person is facing criminal contempt, s/he faces the possibility of more serious fines and even imprisonment as penalties if a judge finds that s/he has violated the order. Usually, for a judge to order a jail or prison sentence, the abuser would have all of the rights associated with a criminal charge, such as the right to a jury trial. If the abuser would be facing substantial jail time, a lawyer could be appointed as well. Also, the standard of proof for criminal contempt is “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which means a judge or jury has to think that it is practically certain, based on the evidence, that the abuser violated the order.