Domestic Violence State Legislation

While it is important that standards are set on a federal level as far as what is considered domestic abuse, the most power is held within the state. Domestic violence cases are judged based on state legislation so it is important to understand the definitions and legislation that is happening on a state level.

The majority of states have laws that limit domestic violence to acts that “...result in physical injury or places one in reasonable apprehension of serious bodily injury.” [1] This is harmful to domestic violence victims because often psychological abuse evolves into physical abuse. Without these non-physical acts included victims are unable to protect themselves from their abuser before they are physically harmed. These state definitions are important in situations beyond criminal charges, for example in cases where the victim is attempting to get a restraining order against their abuser or where the victim is attempting to get full custody of a child in an attempt to remove the child from the abusive situation.

California, Hawaii, and Connecticut have passed legislation including “coercive control” in their definitions of domestic abuse, Maryland, New York and South Carolina have proposed this change to their legislation however it has yet to pass. [2] Coercive control is a subtler form of domestic abuse that occurs when an abuser “isolates a victim from friends and family, takes over their personal finances, surveils a victim’s activity, withholds access to contraceptives, or uses verbal attacks to reinforce authority,”; this form of abuse is often overlooked by the courts and not considered abuse. [3] The author of the California coercive control bill argues that the main strength of the bill is “being able to use the pattern of abuse as part of your testimony in court,” because many other states don’t define domestic violence as a pattern, instead, as an act that results in physical harm. [4]

Many scholars believe that the US is behind the curve when it comes to domestic violence definitions. Over the past few years, England and Wales, Ireland, and Scotland have passed laws that bridge the gap between the academic and legal definitions of domestic abuse. [5] 

“Experts largely agree: domestic violence occurs via a pattern of abusive behaviors that unfolds over time, and its manifestations include both physically-violent and emotionally-abusive behaviors. In contrast, criminal statutes in the United States continue to conceptualize domestic violence as single acts of physical violence or threats of physical violence.” [6]

Some scholars have proposed that states should adopt laws similar to the ones passed in Europe, specifically Scottland’s Domestic Abuse Act. This act incorporates both physical and non-physical acts into its definition, therefore, protecting more victims from a legal standpoint. [7] Additionally, this act does not require prosecutors to prove that the victim has suffered any harm, instead, they must “prove that a reasonable person would view the abuser’s behavior as likely to cause the victim to suffer physical or psychological harm.” [8] This is a much better system than many in place in other countries because psychological trauma can be very subjective and hard to prove.


  1. “Domestic Violence or Family Abuse,” Virginia’s Judicial System, (n.d),

  2. Kate Elizabeth Queram, “Why States Are Expanding Domestic Violence Laws to Include Emotional Abuse,” Route Fifty, October 4, 2021,

  3. Daniela Pardo, “California Bill Aims to Change How Domestic Violence Is Defined,” Spectrum News 1, September 26, 2020,

  4. Pardo, “California Bill Aims to Change How Domestic Violence Is Defined.”

  5. Teresa Manring, “Minding the Gap in Domestic Violence Legislation: Should States Adopt Course of Conduct Laws?” Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 111, no. 3 (Summer 2021): 773–803

  6. Manring, “Minding the Gap in Domestic Violence Legislation.”

  7. Manring, “Minding the Gap in Domestic Violence Legislation.”

  8. Manring, “Minding the Gap in Domestic Violence Legislation.”

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