“Domestic violence” and “domestic abuse” are terms used by legislators to define very similar conduct.
“Domestic violence” and “domestic abuse” are used in news stories to refer to incidents or allegations of physical violence committed between people who are married, who live together, or are who are dating. Legal definitions of domestic violence and domestic abuse are often broader in terms of both the type of conduct and type of relationships that fall within the definitions of domestic violence and domestic abuse. Although some states use the term domestic violence while others use domestic abuse, the terms describe similar conduct.
Domestic Abuse & Domestic Violence in State Codes
Both “domestic violence” and “domestic abuse” appear in state codes. Either term can refer to a crime or class of crimes. States also use the terms in sections of their codes outside of the criminal sections. For example, the terms domestic violence and domestic abuse appear in statutes often referred to as family law or domestic relations law; this category of law is an umbrella term that typically consists of civil statutes related to divorce, child custody and visitation, and civil restraining orders and injunctions.
Domestic Abuse Statutes
Although the use of terms domestic violence and domestic abuse can vary from state to state, the terms are used to describe similar conduct. For example, in identifying when a police officer must arrest a person suspected of domestic abuse, a Wisconsin statute defines “domestic abuse” as any of the following when committed against a current or former spouse, a person who resides or resided with the abuser, or against an adult who has a child in common with the abuser:
- the intentional infliction of physical pain, injury, or illness
- the intentional infliction of physical impairment
- a physical act that may cause a person to fear imminent infliction of injury, or
- sexual assault.
(Wis. Stat. § 968.075).
The definition of “domestic violence” or “domestic abuse” can even vary within a state’s code. Wisconsin’s statute addressing domestic abuse restraining orders broadens the definition of domestic abuse found in § 968.075 by adding the act of property damage and threats to commit any of the prohibited acts to the list of actions that constitute domestic abuse. In other words, in Wisconsin, property damage committed by a spouse is domestic abuse in the setting of a judge considering an application for a domestic abuse restraining order, but the same act does not require a police officer to arrest the perpetrator, because property damage is not considered domestic abuse in the context of an officer’s duty to arrest domestic abuse suspects.
(Wis. Stat. §§ 813.12, 943.01).
Some state codes use both domestic violence and domestic abuse in their laws. While Wisconsin uses “domestic abuse” in the above-mentioned statutes and other laws in its code, the state also uses “domestic violence” in other places, such as in the state’s child custody and placement statutes.
(Wis. Stat. § 767.41).
Domestic Violence Statutes
While Wisconsin and other states label as “domestic abuse” violent acts and threats between people in certain specified relationships, other states use “domestic violence” to describe similar conduct.
For example, North Carolina’s definition of domestic violence resembles Wisconsin’s definitions of domestic abuse. North Carolina defines domestic abuse as any of the following acts when committed between current or former spouses, people of the opposite sex residing or having resided together, people related as parents and children or grandparents and grandchildren, people who have a child in common, current or former household members, or people currently or formerly in a dating relationship:
- attempting to or intentionally causing bodily injury
- placing the victim in fear of receiving an imminent bodily injury
- continued harassment rising to such a level as to inflict substantial emotional distress, or
- rape, sexual offense against a child, sexual offense, sexual battery.
(NC Gen. Stat. 50B-1)
Other states’ definitions of domestic abuse or domestic violence may be more expansive or specific in defining acts prohibited by domestic abuse and domestic violence statutes. Arizona, for example, defines “domestic violence” as one of the following acts committed between current or former spouses, people who reside or have resided together, people who have a child in common or are expecting a child, close family members, or people currently or formerly in a romantic or sexual relationship:
- a dangerous crime against a child
- negligent homicide, manslaughter, first- or second-degree murder
- threatening or intimidation, assault, or aggravated assault
- custodial interference, unlawful imprisonment, or kidnapping
- unlawfully obtaining labor or services
- criminal trespass or criminal damage
- interference with judicial proceedings
- disorderly conduct
- animal cruelty
- preventing or interfering with an emergency telephone call
- use of electronic communications to terrify, intimidate, threaten, or harass
- harass, aggravated harassment stalking, or surreptitious photographing, videotaping, filming, or digitally recording
- aggravated domestic abuse, or
- child or vulnerable adult abuse.
(Aiz. Rev. Stat. § 13-3601).
United States Code & Domestic Assault
Federal law predominately uses the term domestic violence in the United States Code. The Violence Against Women Act, for example, uses the term throughout the Act.
(42 USC § 13925).
Domestic assault by a habitual offender
Title 18 of the United States Code contains the federal crime of domestic assault by a habitual offender. The statute defines “domestic assault” as an assault committed by a current or former spouse, parent, child, or guardian of the victim, by a person who has a child in common with the victim, by a person who cohabitates or cohabitated with the victim as a spouse, parent, child, or guardian, or by a person similarly situated to a spouse, parent, child, or guardian of the victim. A person who commits a domestic assault who has at least two prior convictions for assault, sexual abuse, a serious violent felony, stalking, or intestate domestic violence against a spouse or intimate partner commits domestic assault by a habitual offender.
(18 U.S.C. §§ 117, 2261, 2261A).
While this federal statute uses the term domestic assault, prior state convictions, whether labeled domestic violence or domestic assault, form the foundation for the federal offense. State and federal laws are focused on identifying, preventing, and punishing acts of violence against family members and others in intimate relationships with the perpetrator, regardless of whether such activity is labeled domestic violence or domestic abuse.