What Happens If A Person Breaks A Restraining Order?

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Court orders are designed to ensure compliance on some important point, throwing the weight of enforcement of the court behind the order to ensure that there will be consequences for non-compliance. In the case of a restraining order, this becomes even more important. A temporary restraining order can be issued in any number of settings, but perhaps the most common is when a person is being harassed or threatened. They will seek this restraining order to keep the person threatening or harassing them from coming within a certain distance or contacting them through any means. But what happens if a person violates this sort of order? There are a number of potential outcomes.

Holding the violator in contempt
Because the restraining order is a court order, the judge that issued the order has the option of holding the person in contempt of court. This will allow the judge to issue fines or order the person to jail for an extended period of time. While this is not a typical step taken in these cases, it is well within the judge’s power and can, at times, be the best option.

Misdemeanor charges if done alone
Most states make it a misdemeanor crime to violate a restraining order if that order is issued for protection. This means that prosecutors will often charge the violator with a misdemeanor as a result of breaking the order.

If the state is going to charge the violator with a crime, then it must show that the violator broke the order knowingly or intentionally. Crimes require what is known as “mens rea,” or an accompanying mental culpability. It is not enough that a person accidentally spoke or came to a place. If a person is bound by a restraining order and ran into you at the mall, for instance, it would not be possible to prove that they had knowingly or intentionally violated the order. The requirement of intent constrains what prosecutors can do, but there are times when it is easy to show that the person broke the order with a criminal mindset.

Felony charges if accompanied by other criminal acts
In some states, if the breaking of the restraining order is paired with another criminal act, then it can rise to a felony level. This allows for harsher penalties, including prison time and bigger fines. Imagine, for instance, that you have a restraining order against an ex-boyfriend who has been driving by your home at night. If he comes and vandalizes your vehicle, then he will likely be charged with a felony not only for the criminal mischief, but also for violating the restraining order.

Prosecutors are much more likely to seek serious consequences when the conduct goes beyond just simple contact. Likewise, if a person behaves in a threatening manner toward the victim, securing a felony outcome is easier. In the age of domestic violence and relationship-related murder, police and the courts take the violation of these orders much more seriously than in the past.