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Warrantless arrests in crimes involving domestic violence

"Domestic violence" is a term often used by news media to describe or categorize a crime involving an attack or assault by one person against the person who is a spouse or a person sharing a residence. But how does the law define this broad and vague term? Pennsylvania does not have a statute that specifically defines the crime of "domestic violence." Instead, the kinds of crimes that are considered to involve domestic violence are enumerated in a statute that spells out the lawful basis for an arrest for domestic violence when the officer has only "probable cause" to believe that a crime has been committed.

The enumerated offenses include involuntary manslaughter, assault, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, making terroristic threats and stalking whenever such crimes involve "a family member or a household member." (A different statute lists the acts that constitute "domestic violence" for purposes of child protection, but that statute specifies that its definition of domestic violence does not apply to cases involving criminal conduct.) The terms "family member" or "household member" include "Spouses or persons who have been spouses, persons living as spouses or who lived as spouses, parents and children, other persons related by consanguinity or affinity, current or former sexual or intimate partners or persons who share biological parenthood."

In order to make a warrantless arrest for a crime involving domestic violence, a police officer must have "probable cause" to believe a crime has been committed. The officer's belief does not require the officer to have been present when the crime was committed and can presumably be based upon the statement of the alleged victim. The officer must also observe "recent physical injury to the victim" or "other corroborative evidence."

As recent cases involving prominent professional athletes and entertainers demonstrate, a criminal charge of domestic violence is a very serious allegation that can have many harmful consequences. Anyone charged with such a crime should consult with a criminal defense attorney who is experienced in defending such cases.

Source: Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes, "Title 18, Sec. 2711, "Probable cause for arrests in domestic violence cases," accessed on Feb. 2, 2015

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