The Intersection of Family Law

By: David Slepkow

The intersection between family law, criminal law and divorce in RI


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

A misdemeanor is considered domestic if it involves certain family member, 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.

In the event that a person is charged with a domestic offense, a no contact order will issue. The No Contact order will preclude the accused from having any contact with the victim, his or her spouse or significant other.

A no contact order often reeks havok upon the family unit especially when the parties are married or have children. The police will remove the accused from his or her residence. This removal creates a whole new set of challenges for the family. In many instances, the accused is the sole support for the family. Also, there are often visitation issues that arise immediately. The accused often wants to visit his or her children.

The victim usually has her own opinions which may or may not include the desire for the accused to visit with the children. Furthermore, the accused often has the need and desire to obtain his or her personal belongings such as clothes, toiletries, tools, work items etc.Also, the victim may seek another restraining order from the family Court or District Court and may seek child support.

This article addresses the above mentioned complex issues and answers the following questions:

Should I get a Rhode Island 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 their own attorney has a fool for a client. Lawyers / 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 if you meet the income and eligibility requirements.

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

Any offense which is charged as a domestic offense is more serious than the same charge charged as a non domestic offense. Under Rhode Island (RI) law, a person who is found guilty of a domestic offense or who takes a nolo contendere plea with a sentence of filing, probation or suspended sentence must take batterers intervention classes. If found guilty of a domestic offense or if there is a plea bargain then a no contact order will enter automatically unless the victim is able to drop the no contact order.

A second conviction for a domestic offense in Rhode Island may lead to a minimum ten days at the aci! A third conviction for a domestic offense may be charged as a felony. Keep in mind that not all plea agreements constitute a criminal conviction. In RI any sentence with a suspended sentence, guilty finding, plea of guilty, fine or period of incarceration constitutes a criminal conviction. A nolo contendere plea with probation or filing with court costs does not constitute a conviction in Rhode island! A domestic conviction also will looks worse then a non domestic conviction on the accused's record when seeking employment opportunities.

Also, sentencing is usually more harsh for domestic cases then a non domestic offense. Furthermore, in domestic cases a one year filing cannot be expunged at the end of the year. There is an additional two year waiting period to expunge a domestic filing. Please see my other article concerning Rhode Island misdemeanors for a comprehensive explanation of a one year filing in Rhode Island.

Upon entering a plea or being found guilty of a crime with domestic implications then the defendant will be ordered to complete a batterer's intervention program which involves attending classes. The defendant can also be ordered to pay restitution to the victim if applicable and obtain substance abuse or mental health counseling. Failure to attend the Batterers classes, failure to pay restitution or failure to attend counseling could be considered a violation of probation, suspended sentence or a filing.

What is a no contact order?

In Rhode Island, A "no contact order" means that the defendant is precluded from having any contact and or communication with the victim or the person under the protection of the no contact order. This includes but is not limited to letters, emails, text messages or messages delivered through a third party.

In other words if a person is under a no contact order and sees the victim in public they must leave the area immediately and not acknowledge the victims existence. A person cannot even say "hi" if they walk by the victim by chance 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 and calls the defendant. A person can be charged with breaking a no contact order even if invited by his wife to come back to the marital home.

Dropping / dismissing the no contact order

The police cannot drop a no contact order. Only a judge can drop a no contact order. 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.

However, in the event that the alleged abuse is severe or there is a documented history of abuse then the judge may refuse to drop the no contact order. The no contact order may not be dropped by the judge if the victim states that she is still afraid of the accused. It is much easier to drop the no contact order at the pretrial hearing then it is to drop it at the arraignment. Some judges are hesitant to drop the no contact order at the arraignment. The judge will typically ask the police who are present at the arraignment whether they have any objections to the no contact order being dropped

Can the victim dismiss the no contact order after the arraignment but before the pretrial conference?

In the event that the victim wants to drop the no contact order after the arraignment but before the pretrial the victim can go to the clerk and ask that the file be brought in front of the judge. After conferring with the domestic advocate the judge will rule on whether the no contact order will be dropped.

Can the no contact order be dropped at the pretrial conference?

The victim who wants to cancel the no contact order will have another opporunity at the pretrial conference. The pretrial conference is typically scheduled a couple of weeks after the arraignment. At the pretrial conference, the victim can approach the judge and again seek to have the no contact order dropped

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


The criminal Court will not get involved in any 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, disposition of the marital real estate, etc. Those issues are the province of the Rhode Island Family Court not the District court !The District Court is where criminal misdemeanor cases are heard.

The Court has the power to order restitution to the victim for any actual damages suffered by the victim as a result of the crime such as destruction of property, medical bills, stolen funds etc.

The District Court in a criminal case cannot be involved in setting visitation or dealing with issues concerning divorce or custody of the minor children. The Rhode Island Family Court is the proper Forum for dealing with issues related to divorce and child custody such as: child support, visitation, financial restraining orders and issues concerning marital property, marital real estate and debt.

Obtaining personal belongings (property) when there is a no contact order.

There are several proper ways for an accused to obtain his / her personal belongings when there is a no contact order in effect. Personal belongings usually consists of personal property such as clothes, sneakers, uniforms, personal effects etc. 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. The downside of this arrangement is that the police often are in a rush and enforce a severe draconian time limit.

If the accused has a private attorney, he can contact the victims attorney who 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

The accused can attempt to arrange to get his belongings through a third party. The accused must be careful not to violate the no contact order.

When does a no contact order in Rhode Island (RI) expire?

A no contact order expires when the sentence period is finished. A no contact order also expires if the case is dismissed or the defendant is found not guilty. The no contact order expires if the judge terminates the no contact order at the request of the victim.

Be careful because there may also be another restraining order issued as a result of a divorce or Family Court matter or a District Court restraining 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 vigilante in order to not violate the 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 at the ACI if they are accused of violating a no-contact order. For example, if a person is on probation or bail, a single phone call made by the defendant to a victim under the protection of a no contact order probably means a minimum of ten 10 days in jail at the ACI.

A probationary period or filing period is a time of great risk for a defendant and a defendant must be careful to stay out of trouble! A person must be even more vigilant if there is a no contact order, order protection from Abuse from The Rhode Island Family Court or restraining order in effect. A violation of a no contact order or a Family Court restraining order is a violation of probation.

A person with a suspended or stayed sentence faces the most potential risk regarding violation of probation in RI. As a result of a probation violation of violating a no contact order, a person with a suspended sentence could be ordered to serve the remainder of the suspended sentence at the adult correctional institution (ACI)

For Example, a person with probation may get themselves deeper into trouble when they resume communications or contact with their wife or girlfriend 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/her at the aci as a probation violator as well as new charges for domestic assault and violation of a no contact order or restraining order.

Rhode Island Family Court restraining orders: (1) Complaints Protection from Abuse and (2) 'Civil restraining orders' and how they relate to criminal law

A defendant must Be careful! There may be a separate order protection from abuse restraining order that issued from Rhode Island Family Court as a result of a complaint protection from abuse. The Family Court has jurisdiction to issue an order protection from abuse restraining orders for up to three (3) years. The Family Court can issue restraining orders for persons who are married, are divorced, are family members or who have children in common as well as other jurisdiction set forth in the statute. There may also be a restraining order issued by a Court of another state or another Court

A protection from abuse case is not a criminal case. Violation of Family Court Complaint protection from Abuse restraining order is a crime in itself and also may constitute a violation of probation, bail and violation of conditions of a filing.

There are two types of Family Court restraining orders, "Complaint Protection from Abuse" and a civil restraining order. Both of these types of Restraining orders can be in addition to divorce proceedings.

Is Violating a Family Court restraining order which is not an order protection from abuse a crime?

No. A violation of a Family Court restraining order which is not a Complaint Protection from Abuse is not a crime. Violation of this type of order is punishable by contempt. However, If the restraining order contains language that violation of the order is a crime then there might be criminal implications.

Civil restraining orders are not nearly as effective as Complaint Protection from Abuse restraining orders. Civil Restraining orders are typically part of a divorce.

In a complaint protection from abuse case in Rhode Island 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 also award visitation and in some instances may order supervised visitation. The Court can order that the Defendant vacate forthwith and remain out of the household. The Court can also order that a person take batterers classes or drug and alcohol counseling. The Court can order drug and alcohol testing. The Court can also order the Defendant to surrender possession of all firearms / guns to the Police department.

Is a violation of a Rhode Island District Court Restraining order a crime?


When should a Restraining orders be filed in District Court?

If the restraining order is against a current boyfriend or girlfriend or an ex boyfriend or girlfriend who you had a substantive dating relationship within the prior year but you have no child with, then Rhode Island District Court is the proper Forum.

If you have a child with your current or ex boyfriend/ girlfriend then the restraining order should be filed in the Family Court. A restraining order against a current roommate can be filed in District Court.

RI Superior Court Restraining orders:

If you are seeking a restraining order against a prior friend, neighbor, landlord or anyone else then the restraining order must be filed in Superior Court. Violation of a Superior Court restraining order does not constitute a crime. Violation of a Superior Court Restraining Order is punishable by contempt which could potentially lead to a period of incarceration.

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

A no Contact order is an order issued as a result of a criminal charge. A no Contact order issues at an arraignment either at the police station or at Court. Violation of a no contact order is a crime in itself and may constitute a violation of Probation or a filing. 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.

A Restraining order stays in effect until the date designated on the restraining order. A Restraining order will stay in effect even if the defendant is found not guilty or the criminal case is dismissed.

If there is a no contact order protecting me should I also obtain a restraining order ?

It Depends. A no contact order expires when a case is dismissed; a person is found not guilty or after any sentence expires.

The No Contact order will expire when a probationary period or filing or suspended sentence is over. If you feel you need protection in case the no contact order expires and 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 a no contact order!

Resolving issues concerning custody and visitation of children as well as divorce and family related matters when a criminal case is pending:

If your spouse or girlfriend or boyfriend is preventing you from visiting or talking to your child as a result of a criminal case or no contact order then you may need to file for divorce or a separate action for custody or visitation in Family Court.

The Family Court can set visitation and child support as part of a Complaint protection from abuse restraining order. In some instances when domestic violence is alleged or there are issues concerning alcohol, drug abuse or mental health then the Family Court may order supervised visitations. These Supervised visitations may occur at the Providence Family Court or may be supervised by a third party.

Can the defendant testify in The Complaint protection from abuse hearing when he or she has a pending criminal charge?

This is an important determination for the defendant. The defendant must consult with his / her attorney and weigh the pros and cons of testifying in the hearing. A defendant in a criminal case has the right to take the Fifth Amendment and not testify in the case. A defendant in a complaint protection from abuse case must be careful because any testimony in the abuse case can be used against the person in the criminal case. The defendant can seek to continue the abuse case until the criminal case is resolved.

What County in the Rhode Island Court system will criminal law and divorce cases be heard?

Al the counties in Rhode Island (Providence, Kent, Newport and Washington County) follow the same general rules and procedures. Providence County includes East Providence, Providence, Cranston, Cumberland, Barrington, Bristol, North Smithfield, woonsocket and other towns and cities. Kent County includes Warwick & North kingston, East Greenwich as well as other towns. Newport County includes Newport, Middletown & Portsmouth. Washington County includes South Kingstown, Wakefield etc.

Rhode Island Attorneys legal Notice per RI Rules of Professional Responsibility:

The Rhode Island Supreme Court licenses all lawyers in the general practice of law, but does not license or certify any lawyer / attorney as an expert or specialist in any field of practice.

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