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Legal Information: General

Domestic Violence Restraining Orders

Domestic Violence Restraining Orders

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 in Spanish with English sub-titles.

  • Restraining order laws are state laws and each state has different laws (also called statutes) that lay out the requirements for getting an order.
  • A restraining order is a legal order issued by a state court which requires one person to stop harming another person. It is also sometimes called a protection order, an injunction, an order of protection, or some other similar name.
  • 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.

General information
When an abuser violates an order
Civil contempt and criminal contempt

General information explaining what restraining orders are and how they can help you

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 permit the court to order the abuser to stop hurting or threatening you (“cease abuse” provisions). The majority of states’ orders can also instruct the abuser to stay away from you, your home, your workplace, or your school (“stay away” provisions). You generally also can ask the court to order that all contact, whether by telephone, text messages, notes, mail, fax, email, through a third person, or delivery of flowers or gifts, is prohibited (“no contact” provisions).

Some statutes also allow the court to order the abuser to pay you temporary child support or continue to make mortgage payments on a home owned by both of you (“support” provisions), to award you sole use of a home or car owned by both of you (“exclusive use” provisions), or to pay you for medical costs or property damage caused by the abuser (“restitution” provisions).

Some courts might also be able to order the abuser to turn over any guns, rifles and ammunition s/he has (“relinquish firearms” provisions), attend a batterers’ treatment program, appear for regular drug tests, or start alcohol or drug abuse counseling.

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 (“custody, visitation and child support” provisions).

Information for 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. However, some states require victims to go through the police or another law enforcement official, like the prosecutor, to enforce a restraining order instead of filing for contempt in court on their own.

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.

Civil contempt is different than 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, like the right to a lawyer and the right to a jury trial. 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.

Please select your state from the drop-down menu at the top of this page to read about the specific laws in your state.