If you are charged with ANY domestic violence charge - be it a felony or a misdemeanor - make sure you read this carefully before you even consider entering a plea of guilty or no contest.
"Domestic violence" - in and of itself - is not an offense. Rather it is a designation. Pursuant to Florida law, a domestic relationship exists between "spouses, former spouses, persons related by blood or marriage, persons who are presently residing together as if a family or who have resided together in the past as if a family, and persons who are parents of a child in common regardless of whether they have been married. With the exception of persons who have a child in common, the family or household members must be currently residing or have in the past resided together in the same single dwelling unit."
The domestic violence designation can be applied to any of the following offenses: "Assault, aggravated assault, battery, aggravated battery, sexual assault, sexual battery, stalking, aggravated stalking, kidnapping, false imprisonment, or any criminal offense resulting in physical injury or death of one family or household member by another family or household member."
For many of the less severe domestic violence offenses - such as misdemeanors - a diversion program such as Pretrial Intervention may be available for first-time offenders. This program will result in the dismissal of the charge(s) if successfully completed. Even better, the State may decline to file charges or may dismiss outright if the alleged victim doesn't want to cooperate (failure of the victim to cooperate is by no means a guarantee that a case will be dismissed).
If your domestic violence charge is dismissed and you are otherwise eligible, you may expunge the charge from your record.
However, if you enter a plea of "no contest" or "guilty" to ANY domestic violence charge - including misdemeanors - you CANNOT seal your record. Even if adjudication is withheld, you cannot seal a domestic violence.
So it is critical that you understand that even if you are not convicted of the offense (withhold of adjudication) and even if the offense is normally one that you can seal (like a non-domestic battery), you cannot seal the charge if the domestic violence designation has been applied.
Make sure you understand this before you plead guilty or no contest to a domestic violence charge. While there may be greater consequences at stake - such as a lengthy prison sentence - and perhaps the sealing of your record may not be the highest priority in light of such severe circumstances, it is still important to know what you're getting into. A plea of no contest or guilty to a domestic violence offense means a permanent criminal record.
Eric Matheny is a South Florida criminal defense attorney representing clients in domestic violence cases.