The Intersection of Family Law and Criminal Law in Rhode Island

Learn the complexities between Family Law and Criminal Law.


A Rhode Island criminal domestic misdemeanor or felony case is often intertwined with complex issues concerning family law, child custody, child support, visitation, restraining orders, and divorce.

Similarly, a Rhode Island family law case is often intertwined with criminal law issues. In some cases, there are three or more cases proceeding at the same time: a criminal case, a Complaint Protection from Abuse, and a divorce. There also may be a child support case, paternity proceeding, or juvenile proceeding pending. This article applies to misdemeanor criminal charges.

What is the difference between a domestic offense and a non-domestic offense?

A misdemeanor offense is considered "domestic" if it involves certain family members, a spouse, girlfriend, or boyfriend. An assault, disorderly conduct, larceny, and other criminal charges can all be charged as domestic offenses. Therefore, if there is a domestic violence component to an assault case, the case will be charged as a domestic assault rather than just an assault.

Any offense which is charged as a domestic offense is more serious than the same one charged as a non-domestic offense. Under Rhode Island law, a person who is found guilty of a domestic offense (or who takes a nolo contendere plea to a domestic offence with a sentence of filing, probation, or suspended sentence) must take a batterer's intervention class.

If found guilty of a domestic offense, or if there is a plea bargain, then a no-contact order will enter automatically. The defendant can also be ordered to pay restitution to the victim, if applicable, and may be ordered to obtain substance abuse or mental health counseling. Failure to attend the batterer's classes, failure to pay restitution, or failure to attend counseling could be considered a violation of probation, suspended sentence, or a filing.

Moreover, sentencing is usually harsher for domestic cases than for non-domestic offenses. A second conviction for a domestic offense in Rhode Island may lead to jail time, and a third conviction may be charged as a felony.

What is a no-contact order?

In Rhode Island, a "no-contact order" means that the defendant cannot have any contact or communication with the victim (the person under the protection of the order.) Contact includes, but is not limited to, letters, emails, text messages, or messages delivered through a third party: the defendant cannot use these or any other methods to contact the victim.

In other words, if a person is under a no-contact order and sees the victim in public, he or she must leave the area immediately and not acknowledge the victim's existence. A person cannot even say "hi" if the victim happens to walk by on the street.

A person can be arrested under Rhode Island law for violating a no-contact order, even if the victim initiates the contact.

How is a no-contact order dropped or dismissed?

The police cannot drop a no-contact order; only a judge can do so. The victim can attempt to drop the no-contact order at the arraignment. Prior to approaching the judge at the arraignment, the victim must speak with the domestic violence counselor at court. The judge may dismiss the no-contact order at the arraignment if the judge believes it is appropriate to do so.

However, where the alleged abuse is severe or where there is a documented history of abuse, the judge may refuse to drop the no-contact order. The order may not be dropped by the judge if the victim claims to be afraid of the accused.

Will the criminal judge in District Court resolve visitation or custody issues?

No. The criminal court won't get involved in family-related issues, such as child custody, child support, alimony, paternity, relocation out-of-state, equitable division of marital property, visitation, payment of marital bills, payment of mortgage, payment of credit cards, or the disposition of marital property. Those issues are decided by the Rhode Island Family Court, not the District Court.

How do I recover my personal belongings when there is a no-contact order?

There are several ways for a defendant to properly obtain his/her personal belongings when a no-contact order is in effect. Personal belongings usually consist of personal property, such as clothing, toiletries, and other personal effects.

The accused can contact the police department where the victim resides and seek to make arrangements to pick up personal belongings. The police will often escort the person to the home.

If the accused has a private attorney, he or she can contact the victim's attorney, who in turn can contact the victim to make arrangements. This can have its pitfalls, because the victim may be hostile or the victim may have no interest in negotiating

Finally, the accused can arrange to have a third party pick up his or her belongings, although the accused must be careful not to violate the no-contact order because messages delivered through a third party are considered a violation of the no-contact order.

What happens if a person on bail, probation, filing, or suspended sentence violates a no-contact order?

A person who is on probation, bail or a probation attached to a suspended sentence must be even more vigilant in not violating a no-contact order.

A violation of a no-contact order is a crime in itself, which is also a violation of the conditions of probation, filing, or bail. A person on probation or bail can be held in jail if he or she is accused of violating a no-contact order. For example, if a person is on probation or bail, a single phone call made to a victim under the protection of a no-contact order probably means a minimum of ten days in jail.

A person with a suspended or stayed sentence faces the most potential risk regarding violation of probation. A probation violation resulting from the violation of a no-contact order by a person with a suspended sentence could result in an order to serve the remainder of a suspended sentence at the adult correctional institution.

For example, a person on probation may get into deeper trouble when communications are resumed with a spouse or partner, despite the fact that a no-contact order is in effect. If there is an argument or allegations of domestic assault or abuse, the police may arrest the person and hold him or her as a probation violator, as well as adding new charges for violation of a no-contact or restraining order.

What are the different types of Family Court restraining orders?

There are two types of Family Court restraining orders: "Complaint Protection from Abuse" (CPA) and a civil restraining order. Both of these types of restraining orders can be issued in divorce proceedings.

The Rhode Island Family Court may issue a CPA restraining order that lasts for up to three years. The court can issue CPA restraining orders for persons who are married, divorced, family members, and those who have children in common.

A protection from abuse case is not a criminal case. However, the violation of a Family Court CPA restraining order is a crime in itself and may also constitute a violation of probation and bail.

A violation of a Family Court civil restraining order (which is not specifically a CPA) is not a crime. The violation of this type of order is punishable by contempt (which could bring fines and jail time). Civil restraining orders are not nearly as effective as CPA restraining orders.

In a Complaint Protection from Abuse case, can the court get involved in child custody, visitation, and child support?

Yes. In a Complaint Protection from Abuse case, the Family Court can award temporary child support, visitation, and temporary custody of the children. The court can order that the defendant vacate and remain out of the household. The court can also order that a person take batterer's classes, undergo drug and alcohol testing or counseling, and surrender firearms to the police.

What is the difference between a restraining order and a no-contact order?

A restraining order stays in effect until the date designated on the restraining order and for up to three years. A restraining order will stay in effect even if the defendant is found not guilty or the criminal case is dismissed.

A no-contact order expires when the case is over (dismissal or not guilty finding) and at the end of any probation, filing, or suspended sentence.

If you feel you still need protection after the no-contact order expires and you are in fear of the person, then you may consider seeking a restraining order in addition to the no-contact order.

If there are issues concerning child support and visitation, then you may want to seek a restraining order in addition to the no-contact order, so that the Family Court may make decisions about support and custody.

Should I get a criminal lawyer or divorce lawyer to represent me in a criminal law or divorce case in Rhode Island?

An attorney is needed but not required. The old adage is that a person who acts as his own attorney has a fool for a client. Attorneys are familiar with the legal process, the law, the judges, and the legal system. In a criminal case, you have a right to a free criminal lawyer from the Public Defender's Office if you meet income and eligibility requirements.

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