Punishments vary widely when you violate a restraining order or protective order, starting with a thousand-dollar fine. However, if the violation is particularly egregious, you could be charged with a felony and potentially face many years in state prison.

But regardless of the nature of the underlying court order, you can certainly expect to be charged with at least a misdemeanor (if not a felony) for violating a domestic violence restraining order, as discussed below.

Keep in mind that the police don’t even need an arrest warrant to arrest you allegedly violating a domestic violence (“DV”) restraining order – all California law requires is that they have probable cause – i.e., that it was more likely than not that you intentionally violated it. And if they were wrong for some reason, you have no legal recourse – either civilly or criminally – if they injured you or falsely arrested you.

Nor does the police officer need to see you commit the offense to arrest you for violating the order, even if it was issued in another state or U.S. territory. Whatever the situation, the officer must also have probable cause that you were actually served with the underlying order. See California Penal Code section 836(c)(1) at: https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-836.html. (A cursory review of any one of several statewide databases will quickly confirm whether you were served or whether you otherwise received notice of its contents.)

But if you and the other individual involved in the alleged DV restraining order violation both have protective orders against each other (which is not unusual in DV cases), then the police will arrest whoever was the “dominant aggressor”, even if the other person started the confrontation. This, of course, will be up to the arresting officer’s determination. Pen. Code § 836(c)(3).

Categories of Domestic Violence Restraining Order Violations

Violations are categorized according to the underlying type of protective order, which fall into the following classifications:

  1. emergency protective orders (“EPOs”);

  2. temporary restraining orders (“TROs”); and

  3. semi-permanent restraining orders (“permanent ROs”).

In general, though certainly not always, violations are charged in the following circumstances:

  1. the alleged violation occurred during your current ongoing criminal case for domestic violence; or

  2. you were previously convicted of a crime involving domestic violence, elder abuse or dependent-adult abuse, and the order was included as part of your probationary requirements.

See: California Criminal Jury Instructions (“CALCRIM”) no. 2701 (“Violation of Court Order: Protective Order or Stay Away”) at https://www.justia.com/criminal/docs/calcrim/2600/2701/.

Criminal Charges and Punishments for Violating Domestic Violence Restraining Orders

Misdemeanor Violation of a Protective/Stay-Away Order (No Injury)

At minimum, if you are alleged to have knowingly and intentionally violated this type of court order but the violation does not result in injury to the purported victim, then you will be charged with misdemeanor “criminal contempt” of court under California Penal Code section 166(c)(1), and, if convicted, can expect the following punishment:

  1. a maximum thousand-dollar fine; or

  2. a county jail sentence not to exceed twelve months; or

  3. both a fine and jail.

See: https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?lawCode=PEN&sectionNum=166.

This charge and commensurate punishment is so commonly accepted throughout the California legal system – including both in criminal and civil cases – that the California Penal Code (specifically, section 273.6(a)) explicitly applies this misdemeanor contempt crime to restraining orders issued pursuant to the California Family Code, the California Welfare and Institutions Code, and the California Code of Civil Procedure. See: https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-273-6.html.

If you have previously been convicted of misdemeanor contempt for violating a restraining order, and then are subsequently convicted of the same crime by directly contacting the protected person in any way, then the punishment will increase slightly, though will still fall within the following range:

  1. a fine up to five thousand dollars;

  2. twelve months in the county jail; or

  3. both.

Pen. Code § 166(b)(1). However, each contact will be charged as a separate charge under this criminal statute. Pen. Code § 166(b)(2). Also, you can be charged for this offense even if you called the protected person from jail or prison. Pen. Code § 166(b)(3).

Misdemeanor Violation of a Protective/Stay-Away Order (with Injury)

If you allegedly knowingly and intentionally violated these types of judicial orders and there is some physical injury to the victim (the “protected person”), then you will still be charged with a misdemeanor but the punishment will now be as follows:

  1. a maximum two-thousand-dollar fine; or

  2. a minimum of one month in the county jail; or

  3. a maximum of one year in jail; or

  4. a fine and jail.

California Penal Code section 273.6(b) (see above).

Regardless of whether or not the protected person was allegedly injured as a result of the violation, if you receive probation as your sole punishment (or as part of your punishment – i.e., in addition to jail and/or a fine), then you will also have to make a maximum one-thousand-dollar donation to a battered women’s shelter and, if applicable, pay victim restitution (including for his or her counseling expenses). Pen. Code § 273.6(h). (The court will take into consideration your ability to pay.)

Felony Violation of a Protective/Stay-Away Order

If you were convicted within a seven-year period for criminal contempt prior to a current charge for the same, and the second charge allegedly involves either violence or a “credible threat” of violence to the protected person, then the District Attorney’s Office has the authority to charge you now with either a misdemeanor or a felony (and thus this is known as a “wobbler” crime). Pen. Code § 166(c)(4).

If you are charged with this felony and convicted of a felony, you face the following possible sentences:

  1. one year in jail;

  2. sixteen months in prison;

  3. twenty-four months in prison; or

  4. thirty-six months in prison.

Pen. Code § 166(c)(4). In addition, as with a misdemeanor conviction, if you are convicted of a felony but are not sent to prison (so even if you go to jail), you can still be placed on probation with the same terms as above.

Stalking Crimes

Punishments get much harsher if you are convicted of stalking the victim in violation of a TRO, which will always be charged as a felony under California Penal Code section 646.9(b). If so, then you will face the following prison sentence:

  1. twenty-four months;

  2. thirty-six months; or

  3. forty-eight months.

See: https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-646-9.html. In addition, the court could extend the TRO’s duration for up to ten years. Pen. Code § 646.9(k)(1).

Gun Crimes

If you were prohibited from having anything to do with guns as a result of a TRO, and you allegedly knowingly and intentionally violated that order, then the Assistant D.A. prosecuting your case has the discretion to charge you with a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail, or a felony punishable by up to one year in prison, and a possible one-thousand-dollar fine (again, this is a wobbler). See Penal Code section 29825(b) at: https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-29825.html.

Please note that even if the firearm you allegedly owned, possessed, purchased or received in violation of the TRO was inoperable, you can still be convicted for this offense. The same goes even if you allegedly had someone else holding the gun for you during the (typical twenty-one-day) term of the TRO. See CALCRIM 2512 (“Possession of Firearm by Person Prohibited by Court Order”) at: https://www.justia.com/criminal/docs/calcrim/2500/2512/.

Defenses to Restraining Order Violations

Regardless of whether or not you allegedly injured the protected person, if you are charged with misdemeanor contempt for violating a protection/stay-away order, you can assert the following defenses:

Substantive Defenses

  • You did not actually disobey the order
  • You did not intentionally violate the order
  • Self defense

If you are being charged with a second offense for criminal contempt within seven years of a prior conviction, and you are now alleged to have attacked the protected person, then self-defense would be your best hope of avoiding a second conviction (assuming, of course, you have exculpatory evidence). In other words, if the protected person actually assaulted you or someone near you to a degree where you reasonably believed you or the other person were in imminent danger of physical harm, thereby forcing you to fight off the protected person, then you would have a strong defense.

You were joking when you made the alleged threat, or it was otherwise not credible

Alternatively, under these “second charge” circumstances -- though instead of using violence you are alleged to have threatened the protected person -- but a jury believes that you never intended to place him or her in fear, then you would have a valid defense.

Or, even if you did intend to terrorize him or her with your threat, but a jury believes you had absolutely no way to actually carry it out (for example, you threatened to blast him or her into outer space with your Star Wars Death Star cannon), then you would also avoid conviction. See CALCRIM 1301 at: https://www.justia.com/criminal/docs/calcrim/1300/1301/.

Momentary possession of firearm

If you are being charged with violating a TRO involving guns, then one viable defense is that you were only temporarily in possession of the subject firearm for the purpose of abandoning, disposing of, or destroying it, and that you weren’t doing so to prevent the police from taking it from you. CALCRIM 2512 (see above).

Momentary possession is an unusual defense in the sense that the burden of evidence shifts from the prosecutor to you – after he or she proves beyond a reasonable doubt that you actually possessed it as alleged. Specifically, your burden is to affirmatively prove this defense by a “preponderance of evidence”. In other words, you must convince the jury that it was more likely than not (i.e., at least a fifty-one percent probability) that you were trying to toss or destroy the gun, and not to hide it from law enforcement. CALCRIM 2512.

Justifiable possession of firearm

An absolute defense to this charge is that you were legally justified in possessing the firearm, such as in a case of self-defense. The specific elements of this defense are as follow:

  1. You took the gun away from someone who was trying to use it on you (in an illegal manner – i.e., not in self-defense against you, for example);

  2. you held onto the gun only long enough to transport it to the police; and

  3. prior to or on the way to transporting it, you notified the police you were doing so.

CALCRIM 2512. Again, it’s your burden to prove each and every one of these elements by a preponderance of evidence.

Technical Defenses

The court failed to issue a lawful order

Even if you intentionally violated a restraining order, if the underlying order itself was, for example, unconstitutional or unlawful, then you cannot be convicted of a misdemeanor. Pen. Code § 166(a)(4) (see above).

For example, if you were subjected to a preliminary injunction to stay away from certain geographical locations in LA County because you are/were a(n alleged) gang member, and you were charged with violating that stay-away order by hanging out in one of those locales, then you would have a strong defense that the underlying order violated your Constitutional right to free assembly. See California Supreme Court case People v. Gonzalez (1996) 12 Cal.4th 804, 816-817 at: https://scocal.stanford.edu/opinion/people-v-gonzalez-31744. In other words, any underlying order that is unconstitutional is void and unenforceable as a matter of law.

You never received actual notice of the order

In order to convict you for a knowing and intentional violation of a restraining order, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you not only knew of the court order, but had the opportunity to read it (or at least were made aware of its terms). CALCRIM no. 2701 (see above). So, if you were never served with a copy of the underlying order, and the prosecutor can’t prove anyone ever told you about it, then you would have a viable defense. (Note, however, that he or she doesn’t need to prove that you actually read it.)

You lacked the ability to follow the terms of the order

Examples of Celebrities Involved with/Affected By Permanent Restraining Orders

Conrad Hilton (Paris Hilton’s younger brother)

In early 2015, Ms. Hunter D. Saloman broke up with Hilton Hotels heir Conrad Hilton, who allegedly began stalking her thereafter. As a result, Saloman – daughter of voice-over actress E.G. Daily and Rick Saloman, Paris’ ex-boyfriend and co-star of her notorious 2004 sex tape One Night In Paris – obtained a TRO against him, which was later extended by thirty-six months.

In June 2015, Hilton was arrested for allegedly violating the restraining order (a felony) after he allegedly broke into the Bel Air home where Hunter was living with her father. He then fled the scene after allegedly stealing her father’s Bentley. (As a result, he was also charged with felony grand theft.) See: https://people.com/celebrity/conard-hilton-arrest-grand-theft-auto-restraining-order/.

Mila Kunis

In July 2011, Angeleno Stuart L. Dunn allegedly began stalking actress Mila Kunis (That 70’s Show, wife of actor Ashton Kutcher), including constantly calling her friends and acquaintances to obtain her personal information. As a result, she was able to obtain a TRO against him. Then, in January 2012, Dunn allegedly broke into an empty condominium she owned in Los Angeles and squatted there for a while until he was arrested. The following month, in February 2012, he pled no contest to a misdemeanor charge of unauthorized entry of a residence. At that time, the court also granted Kunis’ petition to grant a three-year-long restraining order against him.

Finally, on May 17, 2012, Dunn was arrested on two felony counts – stalking and stalking in violation of a restraining order – after allegedly staking out Kunis’ Beverly Hills gym for three days straight. (He was arrested on the third day while sitting in his car outside the gym.) If convicted, he would have faced a maximum of forty-eight months in a California penitentiary. See: https://www.eonline.com/news/317235/mila-kunis-gym-rat-charged-with-stalking-violating-restraining-order.

John Cusack

In 2006, allegedly obsessed fan Emily Leatherman allegedly tossed a satchel filled with intimate letters, stones, and hand tools over the fence of actor John Cusack’s (2000’s High Fidelity) Malibu estate. As a result, he shortly thereafter obtained a TRO against her. Three weeks later, Cusack was able to get the restraining order extended by an additional three years. (In 2007, Leatherman was arrested for allegedly stalking Tom Cruise outside of his Beverly Hills mansion in violation of a TRO he had also previously obtained against her.)

On May 31, 2008, Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies were called by a taxi driver who claimed that Leatherman had stiffed him on a fare to Malibu. When deputies arrived on the scene minutes later, they allegedly found Leatherman sitting in the cab. At the same time, Cusak approached the deputies and allegedly explained that he recognized Leatherman in the cab and that she, once again, had tossed a satchel over his fence. As a result (and apparently because Leatherman had come within the distance from Cusak’s home that was proscribed by the permanent R.O.), the deputies arrested her on suspicion of felony stalking in violation of the R.O. See: https://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-cusack1apr01-story.html.

The Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm

Veteran criminal defense trial attorney Ninaz Saffari, the founder of LADALF, has been representing and defending individuals accused of virtually every type of domestic violence crime, including for violations of every type of DV offense. As part of her comprehensive and aggressive defense strategy, when necessary, she will work with other attorneys and experts in related fields – such as family law attorneys, immigration lawyers, alcohol and drug rehabilitation placement counselors, mental health professionals, and expert witnesses.