Who Qualifies as a Victim Under Texas Domestic Violence Laws?
July 12th, 2017 by Tad Nelson in Criminal Defense
Texas treats crimes involving domestic violence more harshly than similar acts against other types of victims. For example, under Section 22.01 of the Texas Penal Code, an assault that causes bodily injury is normally prosecuted as a Class A misdemeanor. But if the victim is a member of the victim’s family or household–or the defendant is in a “dating relationship” with the victim–that same assault charge is elevated to a third-degree felony.
The difference between a misdemeanor and a felony cannot be overstated. A Class A misdemeanor carries a maximum jail term of 1 year. But a third-degree felony can lead to a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
Given the significantly higher penalties, it is perhaps no surprise that some Texas prosecutors have tried to stretch the definition of “family” and “household” to reclassify ordinary assaults as crimes involving domestic violence. But this is not an appropriate use of laws intended to protect victims of spousal and child abuse. Domestic violence carries a heavy legal and social stigma, and it is not something that should be deployed just to add a felony conviction to the district attorney’s record.
Court Rejects Extending Definition of “Household” to Jail Cells
Recently, a state appeals court in Corpus Christi reduced a defendant’s conviction from a felony to a misdemeanor after the prosecution presented what the defense properly called an “absurd” argument. The defendant was in a county jail when he allegedly assaulted his cellmate. He was charged with “assault family violence” on the theory that the cellmate was a member of his “household.”
The jury bought this argument and found the defendant guilty. But the appeals court agreed with the defendant that the Texas legislature did not intend to include prisons in the definition of “household” for purposes of domestic violence felony enhancements. The court noted this was apparently the first case in Texas to address this particular scenario. Section 71.005 of the Texas Family Code actually defines “household” in this context as “a unit composed of persons living together in the same dwelling, without regard to whether they are related to each other.”
In contrast, the defendant and the victim here were sharing a cell in a county jail. “A jail is not intended or designed for occupancy as a dwelling or home,” the appeals court observed. Nobody chooses to live in a jail, as they do in a household. It was therefore inappropriate for the jury to treat the defendant’s assault as an act of household or domestic violence.
Have You Been Falsely Charged With Domestic Violence?
In any Texas criminal case, the prosecution must prove all elements of the alleged offense “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In a domestic violence case, that includes proving the victim was in fact a current or former family or household member. Nobody should ever face a felony conviction based on prosecutorial overreach or insufficient evidence.