Domestic violence is a disturbing crime, with victims of all ages and genders. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been victims of domestic violence. The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence states that in the last year alone 122 victims died as a result of domestic violence, a startling and frightening statistic. With domestic violence being so widespread, many have asked why domestic violence offenders seem to get such light sentences.
What Legally Constitutes Domestic Abuse?
In Pennsylvania, domestic abuse is defined as any of the following acts taking place between household or family members, sexual partners, or those who share biological parenthood:
- Recklessly, intentionally, or knowingly causing bodily injury
- Causing fear of bodily injury
- Assault (sexual or non-sexual)
- Sexually abusing minors
- Stalking that causes fear of bodily injury
Domestic violence can include not just physical abuse but sexual and emotional abuse as well. In addition, domestic violence is not limited to actual harm but is worded to include the threat of harm (hence the inclusion of stalking).
Law Regarding Domestic Violence Arrests
Under Pennsylvania law, when an alleged victim contacts the police with an allegation of domestic abuse, the responding law enforcement officers are required to make an arrest. The responsibility for deciding whether to file charges lies with the prosecutor, not the alleged victim. The alleged victim does not have the legal authority to drop charges, although the prosecutor will likely need the cooperation of the alleged victim to successfully press charges (although this is highly dependent on the nature of the case, including the presence of witnesses or other evidence). In short, once an arrest has been made in connection with domestic violence, only the prosecutor can decide to drop the charges.
If the prosecutor decides not to drop charges, there may still be the option of a plea bargain. A plea bargain is an arrangement made between the defendant and the prosecutor in which the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for either a lesser, more lenient sentence or to have the other charges dropped altogether. Plea deals are extremely common for many types of crime, not just domestic violence. They can be an excellent tool for the prosecution to be able to guarantee some type of conviction and focus on other crimes that they know they can successfully prosecute. It can be a way to make sure that a criminal receives some sort of punishment for their crimes and thus discouraging them from repeating those same criminal actions. From the viewpoint of the defendant, it eliminates uncertainty as to what the outcome of their trial would be. Plea deals are the most common way for domestic violence offenders to achieve a lighter sentence and, hopefully, seek help for the issues that lie at the root of their violence.
Sadly, repeated plea deals can result in destructive cycles of domestic violence. An example of this is the recent news regarding a man in Allegheny County with repeated charges against him for violence and threatening behavior. Because he has always been able to plea down, he does not have an official legal record of domestic violence, which means that on paper he does not look like a violent offender. His repeated success at plea bargaining has resulted in less than 10 months behind bars and allows him to remain on the streets while his family goes into hiding.
In some instances, the prosecution may choose to drop charges, regardless of whether the alleged victim is in favor of doing so. In most instances, charges are dropped because of a lack of evidence (including eye-witness accounts), evidence being deemed inadmissible, new testimony or evidence that contradicts the arrest information, or evidence that the constitutional rights of the defendant have been violated.
A good example of dropped charges is the recent case of Phillies outfielder Odubel Herrera. His girlfriend and accuser decided not to pursue the domestic violence case against him (most likely by refusing to cooperate further with the prosecution) and the prosecution dropped all charges. The MLB, however, has officially suspended Herrera for 85 games as a disciplinary action and Herrera has agreed to seek treatment.
The laws surrounding domestic abuse arrests in Pennsylvania are strict enough to deter a person from making a false accusation in an attempt to get revenge on their partner. Once a charge is made, control of whether charges are filed is taken out of the hands of the accuser. If the accuser changes their mind and decides to back out, they may not be able to convince the prosecutor to do the same. On the other hand, this is an excellent safeguard to prevent an alleged victim from being intimidated into dropping charges: once an arrest is made, the alleged victim cannot force the prosecution to drop charges.
The reason that so many domestic violence offenders seem to get relatively light sentences can be traced to two things: successfully reaching plea deals with the prosecution and having the charges against them dropped. While this may seem frustrating to many, and especially to victims of domestic violence, the law does take domestic violence very seriously and does all that it can to make sure that those guilty of domestic violence are punished for their actions.
Sacchetta & Baldino
Sacchetta & Baldino are skilled, experienced trial lawyers who specialize in personal injury cases. They understand that sometimes victims fall through the cracks of the criminal justice system and must resort to the civil courts to find justice. If you or someone you care about has been a victim of domestic violence, contact us today to speak with a lawyer about your situation. You may be able to find justice in the civil court system.