When Should the Criminal Court Get Involved with Family Law?
Most family law cases make it from petition to marital settlement agreement without having to involve the police or a criminal prosecutor. However, there are cases when a partner is abusive, when the children are in danger, or when a partner makes false accusations that could have grave legal consequences. If you’re involved in such a case, when should you go to the prosecutor?
Family Court or Criminal Court
The biggest difference between family and criminal court is that the former is a civil court only. In other words, while it may have the power to referee and resolve disputes between different private parties, its power to punish criminal wrongdoing is extremely limited. The most available option is a sanction, or fine, for disrespectful behavior and potentially limited jail time for contempt of court. Successful contempt pleadings are rare though and sanctions don’t have an adverse effect if the party is extremely rich or extremely poor.
Criminal courts, on the other hand, are designed to find and punish criminal behavior. Police officers can take down statements and make arrests, prosecutors can initiate investigations, and defense lawyers can make constitutional arguments to protect against false accusations. In family court, it is common for parties make accusations and counter-accusations; in criminal court, the defendant will find that type of finger pointing to be unsuccessful.
The Right Time
So when is the right time to involve police, prosecutors, and criminal courts in a divorce or child custody matter?
In most circumstances, the right time is when the abuse begins. If a partner shoves you against a wall or throws an object at you, you should have the police make a report. If the situation is life-threatening, you should call 911. If you call 911, be sure to tell the dispatcher as much information as possible. These calls are always recorded by the police department, so even if the responding officer makes a mistake, the initial call will reveal any potential inconsistencies. If it’s not life-threatening, consult a family attorney about the best way to file a police report. If the abusive behavior continues, continue making police reports.
There are three important reasons to file a police report against an abuser. First, police reports are almost always admissible evidence in court, so there will be no problem getting the information in front of a judge. Second, in order to obtain a conviction for domestic violence or harassment (depending on your state and county), there usually has to be a pattern of abuse. Constantly making police reports establishes this pattern. Third, it prevents the abuser from filing the charges first. In many abuse cases, the abuser may attempt to accuse the victim first, so that the victim appears to be the abuser instead. Filing a police report first may prevent the abuser from muddying the situation too much.
If you have children and the abuser is your spouse, the dynamic changes. Many spouses are afraid to call the police on their spouse because they do not want their children to see the police arrest a parent of the children. If you believe your life or the life of your children is actually in danger though, seeing a parent arrested is preferable to seeing a parent being abused.