Understanding Domestic Violence Laws in Rhode Island

This Article by RI Attorney Kevin Hagan explains the laws, procedures, and penalties for the crime of Domestic Violence in Rhode Island.

Rhode Island General Laws Section 12-29-2(b) states that a crime becomes a crime of domestic violence when it involves parties whose spouses or former spouses, who are or have been in the past six months in a “substantial dating or engagement relationship,” who are relatives by blood or marriage, who are living together or have lived together in the past three years, or who have a child in common. Rhode Island General Laws 12-29-4(a)(1) prohibits the police from releasing a person arrested for domestic violence without the Defendant’s appearance before the court or a justice of the peace. If that appearance is before a justice of the peace, that justice of the peace must issue a “no contact order” prohibiting the Defendant from having any contact with the alleged victim, regardless of the wishes of the alleged victim. Pursuant to section 12-29-4(a)(2), the judge at arraignment in District Court has the authority to remove a no contact order or to refuse to issue an order in the first instance, but the court will generally issue a no contact order unless the alleged victim is in court requesting contact. Section 12-29-4(a)(3) makes the violation of a no contact order a separate misdemeanor offense.

A police officer must arrest a perpetrator of domestic violence anytime the officer has probable cause to believe a crime of domestic violence has occurred. Probable cause means a “reasonable belief” that the crime occurred. Crimes and charges included in the Rhode Island’s Domestic Violence Statutes include:

  • Assault & Battery
  • Kidnapping
  • Child Snatching
  • Sexual assault
  • False imprisonment
  • Harassment
  • Stalking
  • Disorderly Conduct
  • Trespass
  • Vandalism
  • Homicide/Murder
  • Damage or obstruction of a telephone
  • Burglary and unlawful entry
  • Arson
  • Violations of a Protective Order / Restraining Order / No Contact Order
  • Assault - RI Laws & Penalties

Usually, a police officer has to have an arrest warrant or actually observe the crime being committed before the officer can make an arrest, unless the crime is a felony. However, in the case of domestic violence, the officer can make an arrest without a warrant within 24 hours of the alleged crime occurring. However, after 24 hours, the officer must obtain an arrest warrant. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 12-29-3.)

Additionally, all law enforcement that respond to or investigate any case of domestic violence, sexual assault, or child molestation must complete a Domestic Violence/ Sexual Assault form (“DV/SA form”). The forms are delivered to the DV Unit and are entered into a database that stores the information on all cases and provides statistics that are used by law enforcement and many research outlets. Rhode Island General Laws 12-29-5 requires that any person who pleads nolo contendere or is found guilty of a crime of domestic violence must attend, at his or her own expense, a batterer’s intervention program.

As one can imagine, a multitude of practical considerations surround this rather cryptic statutory scheme. For instance, a complainant may have lied to the police or fabricated a story in order to exact some form of revenge on a domestic partner. Furthermore, a complainant may later recant or alter their story, fearing that either they will be prosecuted for filing a false police report or subsequently be prosecuted for perjury, which would consist of untruthful testimony while under oath. In some cases, a complainant may independently retain legal counsel in order to invoke a privilege against self-incrimination based upon the aforementioned legal concerns. Regardless, a thorough investigation regarding the complainant’s potential motive to lie and their anticipated level of cooperation with the prosecution must be considered in weighing the defendant’s options in domestic cases.

One rather common misconception about domestic related cases is the proposition that a case will be dismissed if the complainant fails to appear for testimonial purposes, often times pursuant to a subpoena. To the contrary, prosecutors will often attempt to introduce the hearsay statements of a complainant to the police, utilizing various exceptions to the general ban on hearsay evidence. The most common of these exceptions in domestic cases is the excited utterance, which has arguably become more difficult for prosecutors to introduce in light of recent cases detailing the constitutional protections afforded pursuant to the Confrontation Clause of the United States Constitution.
Domestic Violence defense requires a thorough knowledge of the statutory framework; however, practical experience is just as vital to a proper defense in these cases. Call Kevin Hagan, Esq. with any questions concerning your rights when implicated for a crime involving Domestic Violence.

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