Domestic Violence

Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

Domestic violence, at its core, is about one person in a close relationship attempting to control and dominate the other. This might involve physical violence, but it could also be emotional, sexual, or financial abuse. Essentially, it’s behavior designed to manipulate and exert power over someone the perpetrator is close to, such as a spouse, partner, or family member. Imagine a scenario where one partner threatens, hits, insults, or even just constantly criticizes the other. This is not a healthy relationship but one marked by fear, intimidation, and control, and it’s an example of domestic violence.

The Harm Legislation Seeks to Address

Lawmakers have recognized the profound harm domestic violence can cause, not just to the victim but to society at large. At the individual level, victims of domestic violence may suffer physical injuries, emotional trauma, and long-term psychological effects. They often feel trapped in a cycle of abuse, isolated from support, and burdened with shame.

Beyond the immediate victims, domestic violence can have ripple effects throughout society. Children who witness such violence at home are more prone to emotional distress, behavioral problems, and are at a higher risk of perpetuating the cycle of abuse in their own future relationships.

From an economic perspective, domestic violence can lead to increased healthcare costs, lost wages, and decreased productivity. Communities burdened by high rates of domestic violence may also experience lowered property values and reduced economic growth. The law seeks to prevent these harms by criminalizing the actions leading to them.

Classification According to Most Codes

Most legal systems classify domestic violence as a criminal offense, with the severity ranging from misdemeanors to felonies depending on the circumstances. Typically, repeat offenses, the use of weapons, or infliction of severe injury will result in harsher penalties.

Categorization Among Other Crimes

Domestic violence is a unique crime that often straddles various categories. While primarily seen as a crime against persons because it involves causing physical or emotional harm to another, it also has elements common to crimes against property if, for instance, possessions are destroyed during an episode of violence. Furthermore, when the abuse is of a sexual nature, domestic violence touches upon sexual crimes.

Tracing the History of Domestic Violence

Historically, the concept of domestic violence is not new. Ancient codes, such as the Code of Hammurabi (around 1754 BC), did touch upon aspects of family rights and protections, though they were not always equal or just by modern standards.

Under common law, domestic relations were largely private matters. William Blackstone, a renowned 18th-century English jurist, noted in his Commentaries on the Laws of England that a husband had the legal right to physically chastise his wife, provided it wasn’t excessive. This perspective, rooted in the idea of the husband’s ownership over his wife, perpetuated a culture of silent suffering among victims.

However, as society evolved, so did the interpretation of laws and societal norms. By the late 19th century, both the U.S. and England started to see legal reforms that recognized a wife’s right to protection from her husband’s physical abuse. The rise of women’s rights movements in the 20th century further shed light on the issue, pushing for more stringent laws and protections.

The transformation of these historical elements over time underlines society’s growing understanding and intolerance of domestic violence. Today, domestic violence is unequivocally condemned in most legal jurisdictions.

Approaches to Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is a grave concern across the United States. While it’s universally acknowledged as a significant offense, the manner in which it is addressed varies from one state to another due to the nature of the U.S. federal system. This means that each state can draft and enforce its own set of laws, leading to variations in definitions, penalties, and supportive measures for victims.

Common Themes Across States

Despite the variance in state-specific laws, there are common threads that run through many states’ approaches to domestic violence:

  1. Categorization by Degree: Many states, like Arkansas, categorize domestic violence offenses based on severity or degree. Typically, this can range from first-degree (most severe) to third-degree (less severe) offenses, with corresponding penalties.
  2. Protective Orders: Almost all states have provisions allowing victims of domestic violence to seek protective or restraining orders against their abusers. These orders aim to prevent further harm by legally prohibiting the abuser from approaching or contacting the victim.
  3. Mandatory Reporting: Some states have mandatory reporting laws that require certain professionals, such as healthcare providers or teachers, to report suspected cases of domestic violence to appropriate authorities.
  4. Domestic Violence Intervention Programs: Many states have recognized the need for rehabilitation and education in addressing the root causes of domestic violence. As a result, they’ve implemented mandatory intervention programs for perpetrators.

Variations Across States

While the aforementioned themes are prevalent, the specifics can differ widely:

  • Definition: The exact definition of what constitutes domestic violence might vary. Some states might have a broader definition that includes emotional or psychological abuse, while others might focus primarily on physical violence.
  • Penalties: The severity of penalties, ranging from fines to imprisonment, can differ based on the state and the degree of the offense.
  • Support for Victims: The level of state-sponsored support available for victims, like shelter homes, counseling services, and legal aid, might vary.

The Arkansas Example

Domestic violence, while universally recognized as a serious offense, is governed by state-specific laws in the U.S. Arkansas, like all states, has its own statutes that address domestic violence, providing both definitions and penalties.

Overview of Arkansas Statutes

In Arkansas, domestic violence is referred to as “domestic battery” and “domestic assault.” These offenses are categorized based on degrees, with the first degree being the most severe.

Domestic Battery

  • First-Degree Domestic Battery (A.C.A. § 5-26-303): A person commits this offense if they cause serious physical injury to a family or household member or engage in conduct that creates a substantial danger of death or permanent disfigurement or protracted loss or impairment of any bodily member or organ.
  • Second Degree Domestic Battery (A.C.A. § 5-26-304): This involves causing physical injury to a family or household member with a deadly weapon or by any other means that shows extreme indifference to the value of human life.
  • Third-Degree Domestic Battery (A.C.A. § 5-26-305): This is committed when a person causes physical injury to a family or household member or recklessly causes physical injury with a deadly weapon.

Domestic Assault

While battery pertains to causing actual physical harm, assault, in this context, typically concerns putting someone in apprehension of imminent physical harm. Arkansas classifies domestic assault in various degrees based on severity, much like domestic battery.

  • Aggravated Domestic Assault (A.C.A. § 5-26-306): This is the most severe form of domestic assault. It may involve actions or threats that create a substantial risk of imminent death or serious physical injury to a family or household member. These actions or threats can be accompanied by the presence of a deadly weapon or other aggravating circumstances.
  • Second-Degree Domestic Assault (A.C.A. § 5-26-307): This typically involves causing apprehension of imminent physical injury to a family or household member. The actions might involve a deadly weapon or indicate an extreme indifference to the value of human life. The distinction between first and second-degree can often hinge on the perceived immediacy and magnitude of the threat.
  • Third-Degree Domestic Assault (A.C.A. § 5-26-308): This is committed when a person intentionally puts a family or household member in fear of physical harm, but the threat might not involve a deadly weapon or indicate an extreme indifference to human life. It represents the least severe form of domestic assault in terms of categorization.

The above classifications highlight the nuanced nature of domestic assault laws in Arkansas, emphasizing that not only physical harm but the mere threat or apprehension of harm can be subject to legal repercussions.

Protective Orders

Arkansas also provides for the issuance of protective orders for victims of domestic abuse. These orders, once granted, prohibit the alleged abuser from engaging in certain activities or going to specific places.


Domestic violence revolves around power and control within intimate relationships and can manifest as physical, emotional, sexual, or financial abuse. This harmful behavior impacts not only the immediate victim, leading to physical and psychological distress, but also echoes throughout society. Witnessing domestic violence can scar children emotionally, potentially perpetuating a cycle of abuse. Economically, it drives up healthcare costs and impacts productivity. Historically, domestic violence was normalized, with legal systems like common law initially offering limited protection to victims. However, as society evolved, so did its legal frameworks, offering greater protection and recognizing the offense’s gravity.

U.S. states individually address domestic violence, resulting in varied definitions, penalties, and victim support systems. However, many states share common approaches like categorizing offenses by severity and issuing protective orders. These measures aim to deter potential abusers and safeguard victims. Arkansas, for instance, distinguishes between “domestic battery” and “domestic assault,” each further categorized by severity. The state also offers protective measures to shield victims from further harm. This state-specific approach exemplifies the broader U.S. strategy, emphasizing the need for awareness and understanding of each jurisdiction’s nuances when addressing domestic violence.


  • Arkansas Code Annotated. First Degree Domestic Battery, § 5-26-303.
  • Arkansas Code Annotated. Second Degree Domestic Battery, § 5-26-304.
  • Arkansas Code Annotated. Third Degree Domestic Battery, § 5-26-305.


Modification History

File Created:  07/17/2018

Last Modified:  07/17/2018

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


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