What is the legal definition of domestic violence in the District of Columbia?
This section defines domestic violence for the purposes of getting a civil protection order (CPO) in Washington, D.C.
You are eligible to file for a CPO against:
- a person regardless of your relationship with him/her if s/he commits:
- a “sexual assault” crime as defined by D.C. law;
- trafficking in labor or commercial sex; or
- sex trafficking of children;1 or
- a family member, household member, or intimate partner if s/he commits:
- any crime against you; or
- cruelty to animals against an animal that belongs to you.1
Note: Crimes committed by a family member, household member, or intimate partner are called “intrafamily offenses.” You can read the definitions of family member, household member, and intimate partner in Who can get a civil protection order? You can read the definitions of some common crimes on our D.C. Crimes page.
1 D.C. Code § 16-1003(a)
What is the legal definition of sexual assault in the District of Columbia?
You are eligible to file for a civil protection order (CPO) against a person regardless of your relationship with him/her if s/he commits sexual assault against you.1
There are several sexual assault crimes in D.C.:
- sexual abuse (1st degree, 2nd degree, 3rd degree, 4th degree, and misdemeanor);
- sexual abuse of children (under 16) and minors (under 18):
- sex trafficking and prostitution offenses:
- sex trafficking of children;
- abducting/enticing/harboring a child for the purpose of prostitution;
- pandering, inducing/compelling a person to engage in prostitution;
- compelling an individual to live life of prostitution against his or her will;
- causing spouse/domestic partner to live in prostitution;
- detaining an individual in a disorderly house for debt;
- sexual abuse of vulnerable individuals:
- attempts to commit any of the above crimes. 2
1 D.C. Code § 16-1001(14)
2 D.C. Code § 23-1907(9)
What types of civil protection orders are there? How long do they last?
There are two types of civil protection orders in Washington, D.C., temporary protection orders and final civil protection orders.
Temporary (ex parte) Protection Orders (TPOs)
A temporary protection order can be issued without the abuser being present in court and without prior notice to the abuser; this is what is meant by an ex parte order.1 A judge will hold an ex parte hearing on the day you file your petition unless it was filed too late in the day to review. In that case, a hearing on the ex parte order will be held the next day the court is open.2
The judge can give you this temporary order if the judge believes that your safety or welfare or the safety and welfare of an animal that belongs to you is in immediate danger from the abuser.3
The first temporary protection order that you get can last up to 14 days. Once you return to court, the judge can extend the temporary protection order for additional 14-day periods, for 28 days with good cause, or for a longer period if both parties consent. 4
Civil Protection Orders (CPOs)
A final civil protection order can be issued by a judge after one of the following happens:
1. there is a court hearing where you and the abuser appear and present evidence and testimony to the judge;
2. there is a court hearing where only you appear – the abuser fails to appear even though you can prove s/he was properly served with notice of the court date; or
3. in court, the abuser consents to the protection order being issued.
In option 1 or 2, above, the judge will only issue the final protection order if s/he has “good cause” to believe that the abuser committed or threatened to commit a criminal offense against you, your animal, or any animal in your household.5 For option 3, this is not a requirement.
A final CPO lasts up to two years - the expiration date should be included on the order. However, the length of the order is subject to change if either party files a motion in court and proves that there is “good cause” to extend, modify, or cancel (vacate) it.6 For information, see How do I change, extend, or cancel my civil protection order?
1 D.C. Code § 16-1004(b)
2 D.C. Code § 16-1004(c)
3 D.C. Code § 16-1004(d)
4 D.C. Code § 16-1004(e)
5 D.C. Code § 16-1005(c)
6 D.C. Code § 16-1004(d-1)
How much does it cost to file and serve a civil protection order? Do I need a lawyer?
There is no fee to file for a civil protection order.
As long as you have a valid home or work address for the person against whom you are getting the order, the Metropolitan Police Department will attempt to serve the protection order petition and motions at no charge when the party being served lives or works in the District of Columbia. If the person lives in Maryland or Virginia, service may also be free as part of an agreement between Washington, D.C. and the sheriff departments in the surrounding areas of Maryland and Virginia.1
Although you do not need a lawyer to file for a civil protection order, it may be to your advantage to have one. This is especially important if the abuser has a lawyer. Even if the abuser does not have a lawyer, it is recommended that you contact a lawyer to make sure that your legal rights are protected. To find free and paid lawyers, go to our D.C. Finding a Lawyer page.
For help in filing an order, you can go to the Domestic Violence Intake Center, which is in the superior court or United Medical Center. The Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia represents some people who file for civil protection orders. If the Office of the Attorney General cannot take your case, there may be other attorneys available to take your case.
In addition, the domestic violence agencies in your area and/or court staff may be able to answer some of your questions or help you fill out the necessary court forms. You will find information on legal assistance and domestic violence organizations on the D.C. Advocates and Shelters page. You will find contact information for courthouses on the D.C. Courthouse Locations page.
If you are going to be in court without a lawyer, our Preparing for Court – By Yourself section may be useful to you.
What protections can I get in a civil protection order?
In a temporary or final civil protection order, a judge can order the abuser to:
- stop committing or threatening to commit criminal offenses against you and any other protected person named in the order;
- stay away from you, any other protected person, and any other specific locations;
- have no contact with you and any other protected person;
- not enter the home or leave the home where you are living if that home is:
- marital property of the parties;
- jointly owned, leased, or rented and occupied by you and the abuser, including if you used to live there but had to leave due to the abuse;
- owned, leased, or rented by you alone; or
- jointly owned, leased, or rented by you and another person who is not the respondent;
- give back or stop using property that you own together or you own individually;
- participate in a psychiatric, medical treatment, or counseling program for domestic violence, parenting, alcohol, drugs, etc.;
- pay your costs and attorney fees;
- give up possession of any firearms or ammunition and not get any new firearms or ammunition;
- give you financial assistance and/or spousal support to pay your rent/mortgage/bills or other expenses;
- stay away from and not harm any animal you own, including ordering the abuser to give you back an animal that belongs to you but is in the abuser’s possession;
- pay you child support;
- not remove you and/or your children from his/her health insurance policy; and
- reimburse you for medical costs, property damage, or other expenses you have due to the abuser’s actions, assuming you have medical bills, receipts, invoices, or estimates that you can bring to the final hearing. 1
The order can also:
- order temporary custody of your children. If the abuser asks for custody, s/he needs to show the judge that custody will not endanger the child or harm the child’s development;
- order temporary visitation. If the abuser asks for visitation, s/he needs to show the judge that visitation will not endanger the child or significantly harm the child’s emotional development);
- order police assistance to help enforce the terms of the order, such as getting your keys returned or escorting the abuser home to collect personal belongings; and
- order anything else that you can show you need in order to be free from the violence.1
Whether or not the judge grants any or all of these depends on the facts of your case.
1 D.C. Code § 16-1004(c)
If the abuser lives in a different state, can I still get an order against him/her?
When you and the abuser live in different states, the judge may not have “personal jurisdiction” (power) over an out-of-state abuser. This means that the court may not be able to grant an order against him/her.
There are a few ways that a court can have personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state abuser:
- The abuser has a substantial connection to your state. Perhaps the abuser regularly travels to your state to visit you, for business, to see extended family, or the abuser lived in your state and recently fled.
- One of the acts of abuse “happened” in your state. Perhaps the abuser sends you threatening texts or harassing phone calls from another state but you read the messages or answer the calls while you are in your state. The judge could decide that the abuse “happened” to you while you were in your state. It may also be possible that the abuser was in your state when s/he abused you s/he but has since left the state.
- If you file your petition and the abuser gets served with the court petition while s/he is in your state, this is another way for the court to get jurisdiction.
However, even if none of the above apply to your situation, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t get an order. If you file, you may be granted an order on consent or the judge may find other circumstances that allow the order to be granted.
You can read more about personal jurisdiction in our Court System Basics - Personal Jurisdiction section.
Note: If the judge in your state refuses to issue an order, you can file for an order in the courthouse in the state where the abuser lives. However, remember that you will likely need to file the petition in person and attend various court dates, which could be difficult if the abuser’s state is far away.