Most of the laws that apply to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault are state laws. These laws cover aspects such as protection orders, divorce, custody, criminal offenses, and more. However, abuse victims should also be aware of federal laws that may apply to their situation. This article focuses on federal laws that target domestic violence offenders. Since these offenses fall under federal jurisdiction, they are often only prosecutable when they involve interstate travel (crossing state lines).
The term "state" encompasses the states of the United States, the District of Columbia, and any Commonwealth, territory, or possession of the United States. It is important to note that in this context, "crossing state lines" also encompasses crossing international boundaries and entering or leaving Indian reservations. Attempting to commit the crimes described in these federal laws is also considered a criminal act. The individual who is the subject of a domestic violence order is referred to as the respondent.
Read the law: U.S. Code, Title 18, Chapter 110A
Topics on this page:
- Interstate Travel to Commit Domestic Violence
- Interstate Stalking
- Interstate Violation of an Order of Protection
Interstate Travel to Commit Domestic Violence
Engaging in a violent act against an intimate partner while crossing state lines is considered a federal offense. The term "partner" encompasses individuals who have cohabited in an intimate relationship, including current or former spouses, and individuals who share a child with the respondent. Actual physical harm is unnecessary for the offense, but the perpetrator must have intended to cause harm, injury, harassment, or intimidation upon crossing state lines.
In essence, if someone travels to another state with the purpose of committing domestic violence, and physical harm occurs as a result, the federal government can charge the alleged perpetrator with domestic violence. If the alleged perpetrator causes the victim to flee across state lines due to the violence, it can also be a federal crime. It is also a federal crime to coerce or force an intimate partner to cross state lines if such action leads to a violent crime against the victim.
A crime of violence is an offense involving the use or threat of physical force against another person or their property. This category includes any felony that poses a significant risk of physical harm while the offense is being committed.
Read the law: U.S. Code, Title 18 § 2261.
Crossing state lines intending to stalk another person is a federal offense. To establish this crime, evidence must demonstrate that the stalking caused the victim to reasonably fear death, serious physical harm or inflicted significant emotional distress. The offender's intention upon crossing the state line must have been to commit acts such as killing, injuring, harassing, or intimidating the victim. The scope of the stalking law extends to the immediate family members of the targeted individual.
The term "immediate family" encompasses a wide range of relatives, including spouses, parents, children, siblings, and all household members connected to the primary victim through blood or marriage. Furthermore, the law considers causing harm or injury to an individual's pet, service animal, or emotional support animal as conduct that violates the law.
Engaging in a pattern of conduct that induces a person to reasonably fear death or serious bodily harm through mail services, interactive computer services (such as email and social media), or any interstate or foreign commerce facility is also classified as a federal offense.
Read the law: U.S. Code, Title 18 § 2261A.
Interstate Violation of an Order of Protection
Every state has its own set of laws governing the issuance and enforcement of domestic violence protective orders. However, if an individual crosses state lines with the specific purpose of disregarding a protective order issued against them, it becomes a federal offense. The objective is to prevent offenders from evading accountability by crossing state boundaries.
According to the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) provisions, it is a federal crime to travel across state lines to violate any aspect of a protection order. The individual in question must have the intent to breach the order at the time of their travel, and an actual violation of the order must occur.
It is also a federal offense to compel or coerce someone to cross state lines, violating the terms outlined in a protection order.
Read the law: U.S. Code, Title 18 § 2262.
Federal law strictly forbids the possession of firearms or ammunition by individuals against whom a domestic violence order for protection has been filed. For this prohibition to apply, the protection order must contain a determination that the defendant poses a credible threat to the victim's physical safety or that the order explicitly prohibits the defendant from using any force that could cause harm to the victim.
When a law enforcement officer confirms the validity of a protection order against a respondent, the officer should enforce the prohibition on firearms. If permitted by state law, seizing the weapons covered by the prohibition is essential to ensure the safety of the victim and the community. Officers should familiarize themselves with the laws in their jurisdiction regarding the possession or transfer of weapons to third parties by individuals subject to an order of protection.
NOTE: The restrictions on firearm and ammunition possession do not apply to temporary orders for protection, which are issued without prior notice to the respondent. The restriction only applies when the order is issued after a hearing where the person received actual notice and had the opportunity to participate.
Read the law: U.S. Code, Title 18 § 922(g)(8).
Possessing a firearm after being convicted of a qualifying misdemeanor crime of domestic violence is considered a federal offense. A qualifying crime is a misdemeanor under federal or state law involving the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force or a deadly weapon. Additionally, the crime must have been committed by:
- a current or former spouse, parent, or guardian of the victim.
- a person who shares a child in common with the victim.
- a person who is or was cohabiting with the victim as a spouse, parent, or guardian.
- a person in a similar position to the victim's spouse, parent, or guardian.
If an individual meets these criteria and possesses a firearm, it violates federal law.
Read the law: U.S. Code, Title 18 § 922(g)(9).
Selling or providing a firearm to an individual convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence is considered a federal offense. It is also a federal offense to sell or provide a firearm to someone known to be subject to a civil domestic violence restraining order. For this crime to apply, the person restrained by the order must have received actual notice of a hearing and had the opportunity to participate in that hearing.
Read the law: U.S. Code, Title 18 § 922(d)(8)-(9).