What is the legal definition of domestic abuse in Rhode Island?
This section defines domestic abuse for the purposes of getting a domestic abuse restraining order in family court or in district court. Domestic abuse is when the abuser commits one of the following acts:
- attempts to cause or causes you physical harm (with or without a weapon);
- places you in fear of immediate serious physical harm (including threatening you with a weapon);
- causes you to have sexual relations against your will by force, threat of force, or duress (coercion);
- stalks you – stalking is defined as either:
- harassment (behaving or acting in a way that intends to seriously alarm, annoy, or bother you, and which serves no legitimate (valid) purpose. His/her actions must reasonably cause you to suffer substantial emotional distress or to be in fear of bodily injury); or
- maliciously and repeatedly following you with the intent to place you in reasonable fear of bodily injury; or
- cyberstalks you (sends any communication by computer to you for the sole purpose of harassing you or your family).1
In addition, a domestic abuse restraining order can be granted in family court on behalf of a minor child who is sexually exploited by anyone, regardless of his/her relationship to the child.2
To figure out which court you have to file in (district court or family court), go to Am I eligible? Do I file in family court or district court?
1 RI Gen. Laws §§ 8-8.1-1(4), (5)(iv)-(vii), (6), (8); 15-15-1(3), (4), (9)
2 RI Gen. Laws § 15-15-3(a)
What is the legal definition of sexual exploitation?
“Sexual exploitation” is defined as when anyone, regardless of his/her relationship to the child knowingly or willfully does –or attempts to do– any of the following:
- encourages, helps, or coerces a minor child to commit a “commercial sex act” by recruiting, employing, enticing, soliciting, isolating, harboring, transporting, providing, persuading, obtaining, or maintaining the minor child;
- encourages, helps, or coerces a minor child to do a “sexually explicit performance” by recruiting, employing, enticing, soliciting, isolating, harboring, transporting, providing, persuading, obtaining, or maintaining the minor child;
- sells or purchases a minor for the purposes of “commercial sex acts” or encourages, helps, or coerces a minor child into doing so.1
A commercial sex act is defined as any sex act or sexually explicit performance in which anything of value is given, promised, or received, either directly or indirectly, by any person.2
A sexually explicit performance is defined as an act or show, intended to arouse, satisfy the sexual desires of, or appeal to the sexual interests of the viewer. The performance can be done publicly or privately and can be performed live or photographed, recorded, or videotaped.3
1 RI Gen Laws § 15-15-1(8)(i)
2 RI Gen Laws § 15-15-1(8)(i)(A)
3 RI Gen Laws § 15-15-1(8)(i)(B)
What types of restraining orders are there? How long do they last?
Both family court and district court offer temporary restraining orders and final restraining orders. These restraining orders may go by different names in different counties. They may also be called protective orders. Here are the differences between the orders:
An emergency order is an ex parte temporary order that can be granted if the courts are closed and you need immediate protection.1 (Ex parte means one-sided, without the abuser being notified or present.) If you need an emergency restraining order, you can contact your local police department for help. A judge may grant you a temporary order over the phone to a police officer. If you receive an emergency order over the phone, it expires at the close of the next business day. You will have to go to court to get a standard temporary order, which will last for up to three weeks, until your full court hearing for a final restraining order.
Temporary ex parte restraining orders are designed to offer you emergency protection until the full court hearing for your final restraining order. To get a temporary ex parte order, you would file your complaint in court during normal court business hours. The judge must believe (after reading your affidavit and verified complaint), that immediate and severe injury, loss, or damage will happen to you if you don’t get a restraining order that day. A temporary order generally lasts for up to 21 days. The court can extend it if the final court hearing gets adjourned beyond the 21 days.2
A final restraining order can be issued only after a full court hearing in which you and the abuser both have a chance to present evidence and testimony to prove your sides of the story.2 If the abuser doesn’t appear at the hearing, you can still get a final restraining order as long as s/he was given proper notice of the hearing. A final restraining order lasts up to three years. You can also later file to have it extended for the length of time that the judge believes is necessary to protect you.3 See How do I change or extend my order?
1 RI Gen. Laws § 15-15-4(b); § 8-8.1-4(b)
2 RI Gen. Laws §§ 8-8.1-4(a)(2); 15-15-4(a)(2)
3 RI Gen. Laws §§ 8.8-1.3(i); 15-15-3(m)(2)
What protections can I get in a domestic violence restraining order?
The things that a judge can order in a restraining order depends, in part, on who you are filing against and which court you are filing in (district court or family court). To figure out which court you have to file in, go to Am I eligible? Do I file in family court or district court?
If you get a restraining order in district court, the judge can order the abuser to:
- stop contacting you, assaulting you, harassing you, or interfering with you in any way at home, on the street, or elsewhere;
- vacate (leave) the household immediately if you live together, unless the defendant has sole legal interest in the household (i.e., s/he is the only owner or legal tenant of the home);
- not buy or receive (or attempt to buy or receive) any firearms while the order is in effect and hand over any firearms in his/her possession within 24 hours of receiving notice of the protective order. The abuser would then have to file proof with the court with 72 hours that s/he properly surrendered the firearms or that s/he does not have any firearms. The firearms can be given to the Rhode Island state police or local police department or to a federally-licensed firearms dealer.1 For more information about what happens after surrendering the firearms, go to If the abuser’s gun is taken away as part of my restraining order, what will happen to it?
Note: These firearms restrictions do not apply if the abuser is a peace officer (law enforcement officer), active member of the military, or in any other position where s/he is required by law or departmental policy to carry departmental firearms while on duty. For these defendants, they can have a firearm only during the course of their employment and at all other times, it must be stored at the place of employment.2
If you get a restraining order in family court, the judge can:
- order the abuser to stop contacting you, assaulting you, harassing you, sexually exploiting you (if you are a minor child), or interfering with you in any way at home, on the street, or elsewhere;
- order the abuser to vacate the household immediately if you live together; Note: Unlike in district court, it doesn’t matter if s/he has sole legal interest in the home;
- award you temporary custody of your minor children;
- include terms in the order to ensure the safety and welfare of all household animals and pets;
- ordering either you or the abuser to pay child support for up to 90 days (only after notice to the respondent and a hearing); and
- not buy or receive (or attempt to buy or receive) any firearms while the order is in effect and hand over any firearms in his/her possession within 24 hours of receiving notice of the protective order. The abuser would then have to file proof with the court with 72 hours that s/he properly surrendered the firearms or that s/he does not have any firearms. The firearms can be given to the Rhode Island state police or local police department or to a federally-licensed firearms dealer.3 For more information about what happens after surrendering the firearms, go to If the abuser’s gun is taken away as part of my restraining order, what will happen to it?
Note: These firearms restrictions do not apply if the abuser is a peace officer (law enforcement officer), active member of the military, or in any other position where s/he is required by law or departmental policy to carry departmental firearms while on duty. For these defendants, they can have a firearm only during the course of their employment and at all other times, it must be stored at the place of employment.4
1 RI Gen. Laws § 8-8.1-3(a), (m)
2 RI Gen. Laws § 8-8.1-3(k)
3 RI Gen. Laws § 15-15-3(a), (k)
4 RI Gen. Laws § 15-15-3(b)
In which county can I file for a restraining order?
You can file a petition in the family court or in the district court (depending on your relationship to the abuser) in the county where you live. If you have moved to another county to avoid further abuse, you can file in that county no matter how long you have been living there.1 However, if you are trying to keep your new address confidential, filing in the county where you have fled to would likely not be a good idea since it would alert the abuser to the fact that you are living in that county.
1 RI Gen. Laws §§ 8-8.1-2(a); 15-15-2(a),(d)
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.