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What does it mean to be arrested for domestic violence?

In just one instant, a heated argument can become something far larger and more frightening. Even if you never lift a finger against your partner. Even if no one is hurt. If the police get involved, you could find yourself arrested for domestic violence.

Domestic violence is a serious problem. Most people who commit domestic violence are repeat offenders, so the law errs on the side of caution. But that also means it sometimes leads to arrests in situations where no charges will follow. This was recently highlighted by the arrest of a Port of Seattle commissioner.

Arrests shine a light on Washingtons domestic violence laws

The commissioner was arrested in late October after the police responded to a call from his home. He was taken into custody and held for just over 24 hours before he was released. After a review of the case, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office chose not to bring immediate charges against him.

Interestingly, that was the second time within one week that the police had arrested a member of the commissioner’s family for domestic violence. They had earlier arrested the commissioner’s wife after responding to a call. But, as with the commissioner, she was released, and no charges were filed.

The arrests highlight some of the more confusing aspects of Washington's domestic violence laws:

  • Domestic violence is not its own crime. It is a label added to any number of crimes committed by one “family or household member” against another. Family and household members include spouses, plus siblings, step-relatives and people who are dating or have a child together.
  • Domestic violence charges can increase the severity of other charges such as assault, property destruction, harassment, intimidation and the violation of a restraining (or “no contact”) order.
  • The law forces police to make an arrest anytime they respond to a call and have probable cause to suspect domestic violence.
  • The alleged victims of domestic violence cannot choose to drop charges. Once an arrest is made, the decision to press charges or drop them lies solely with the prosecutor’s office. Suspected victims are viewed as witnesses.

The commissioner’s arrest, and the earlier arrest of his wife, show how easily stress and heated arguments can become much larger problems.

The need to set the record straight

Domestic violence charges come with steep penalties. These can include no contact orders, jail time, a lengthy parole and an uphill battle in any later child custody contest. The recent news shows how domestic violence charges are sometimes dropped. But that’s not always how things work. In Washington, prosecutors can move forward with charges even if victims refuse to testify.

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