Family Violence Act Offenses: What they are, who they impact, and what they can mean for you
By Barry Hixson
One area of the criminal justice system that can often be confusing is the offenses that are alleged under Georgia’s Family Violence Act. The intention behind this legislation is to help protect victims of domestic violence and punish perpetrators of acts of domestic violence. This is certainly a noble endeavor. However, Family Violence Act (“FVA”) laws, which are sometimes referred to as Domestic Violence (“DV”) laws are broad in their written scope, and in their sweep, and can have unforeseen and lasting impacts both inside and outside of the criminal court process. People are often unaware of these potential impacts.
Family Violence offenses are defined in the law so as to include felony or misdemeanor offenses such as Battery, Simply battery, Aggravated Battery, Simple Assault, Aggravated Assault, Stalking, Criminal Damage to Property, Unlawful Restraint, and Criminal Trespass. Such offenses become FVA crimes when they occur between past or present spouses, persons who are parents of the same child, parents and children, stepparents and stepchildren, foster parents and foster children, or other persons living or formerly living in the same household. Given the breadth of this list, an offense between roommates or former roommates, siblings, or anyone else who has ever lived in the same household could fall under the Family Violence Act. An extreme example might include pushing a former college roommate thirty years after living with that person, resulting in a charge of Simple Battery under the Family Violence Act.
When someone is charged with an offense under the Family Violence Act in some counties, including Cherokee, they are often held without a bond until they see a magistrate judge who will determine the appropriate conditions of bond release and the amount of bond. This hearing can take up to 72 hours to occur, meaning that someone charged with a misdemeanor under the FVA could have to spend more time in jail before being able to post a bond than someone who is charged with a felony offense. Often, the conditions of release placed on these individuals include not returning to the address of the alleged victim and not having any contact with that person. This leads to individuals who are not able to return to their homes or see their children without seeking a modification of these conditions through a court order. This type of bond restriction could, for example, prevent a 17-year-old who is charged with breaking a piece of his parents’ property, which is the offense of Criminal Trespass, from returning to his parents’ home. Fortunately, many judges and prosecutors will exercise their discretion in these circumstances to avoid this scenario from happening.
If an individual is found guilty of an offense under the Family Violence Act, there is also the potential for enhanced or aggravated punishments. These increased punishments can result in an offense that would be a normal misdemeanor being treated as a high and aggravated misdemeanor. It could also result in certain repeat offenses that would be a misdemeanor outside of a Family Violence offense being treated as a felony. In addition, there are extensive classes that the law mandates an individual participate in, with limited exception, if that individual is convicted of an offense under the Family Violence Act.
Outside of court, the collateral effects of these types of offenses can follow an individual around for the rest of his or her life. Convictions on someone’s criminal record for Family Violence offenses are often looked at more harshly than the similar offenses not charged under the Family Violence Act. In addition, Federal law prevents individuals who are convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence from possessing a firearm. This can mean that someone who is convicted of a family violence misdemeanor may never be able to own or possess a firearm again, which can be a very significant collateral penalty for avid hunters, or for those seeking employment in a career field requiring possession and use of a firearm.
The foregoing is simply a summary of who these laws can apply to, what type of offenses are included, and the various ways they can impact an individual in and out of court. People often believe that these charges are not very serious because they are “only” misdemeanor offenses; however, they can be far more consequential than these people believe. When charged with an offense under the Family Violence Act, it is always a good idea to have an experienced attorney identify the ways the case could impact the rest of your life.
-Barry W. Hixson has been practicing law for over 30 years. During that time he served as the Chief Assistant Solicitor General for Cherokee and Acting Solicitor General for Cherokee County. Currently, he is a Senior Associate at the Ghanouni Defense Firm in Woodstock, which focuses on making sure that a single bad situation does not define the rest of a person’s life.
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