Massachusetts Domestic Violence Laws

Note: If you are in an emergency situation, call 911.

What is Domestic Violence in Massachusetts?

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts defines domestic violence as almost any criminal act of abuse committed by one "family or household member" against another. "Abuse" is defined as:

(a) attempting to cause or causing physical harm;
(b) placing another in fear of imminent serious physical harm; or
(c) causing another to engage involuntarily in sexual relations by force, threat, or duress.

Domestic violence abuse can be physical, emotional, sexual, economic control, and neglect. Examples of crimes associated with domestic absuse include:

  • Assault and battery;
  • Assault and battery with a dangerous weapon;
  • Violating a 209A restraining order; and
  • Witness intimidation.

Mandatory Arrest

The law requires a Massachusetts police officer responding to an incident of domestic violence to make an arrest if the officer has probable cause to believe that a domestic violence assault or other serious domestic violence offense was committed within the previous four hours.

If the officer determines that family or household members have assaulted each other, the officer will arrest only the person he or she believes to be the primary aggressor. State law also requires mandatory arrest for violations of restraining orders.

Can a Victim Drop the Charges?

No. Domestic abuse crimes are aggressively prosecuted and even if the victim tells the court and prosecutor they do not wish to "press charges," the case will NOT be dismissed.

If charges are filed, only the prosecutor has the authority to drop them. A judge must approve the prosecutor's request to dismiss a case. The victim is a witness for the state and has no authority to drop charges. In many cases, the State will prosecute a case even if the victim refuses to testify.

The prosecutor may choose not to file charges. In that event, the victim will be notified of that decision.

What Protections Are Available in Addition to Criminal Prosecution?

There are several remedies and legal protections available for victims of domestic violence in Massachusetts. These may include:

  • Address Confidentiality Program (ACP): Victims can get a legal substitute address (usually a post office box) to use in place of their physical address; this address can be used whenever an address is required by public agencies. First class mail sent to the substitute address is forwarded to the victim's actual address.
  • Protective Orders: Victims of domestic violence can apply for protection from abuse orders known as a 209A order.
  • Civil lawsuit: The victim may file a civil lawsuit to recover losses and expenses such as medical bills or pain and suffering damages
  • Custody/child or spousal support orders: These may be modified to prevent any further incidence of violence between spouses, children, or other persons

The following table highlights the main provisions of Massachusetts domestic violence laws. See How to Stop Domestic Violence and Filing a Domestic Violence Lawsuit for more information.

Code Sections MGL c. 209A Abuse Prevention
What Protections are Available?

Civil and criminal

Definition of Domestic Violence/Abuse

Domestic violence means a) physical harm, bodily injury, assault, or the infliction of fear of imminent physical harm, bodily injury or assault, between family or household members; (b) sexual assault of one family or household member by another; or (c) stalking of one family or household member by another family or household member

Family/Household Member Definition


  • Spouses or former spouses;
  • Persons residing or formerly residing in the same household;
  • Persons who are or were related by blood or marriage;
  • Pesons having a child in common regardless of whether they have ever married or lived together;
  • Person who are or have been in a substantive dating or engagement relationship.
Definition of "abuse"

"Abuse," is considered to be one or more of the following:

(a) attempting to cause or causing physical harm;

(b) placing another in fear of imminent serious physical harm;

(c) causing another to engage involuntarily in sexual relations by force, threat or duress.

What is a "substantantive dating or engagement relationship?"

The court will look at the following factors to determine if two people have been in a substantive dating relationship:

(1) the length of time of the relationship; (2) the type of relationship; (3) the frequency of interaction between the parties; and (4) if the relationship has been terminated by either person, the length of time elapsed since the termination of the relationship.

Protective Orders

Mass. Abuse Prevention Order


Misdemeanor or felony. Depends on the nature of the underlying crime and previous criminal history of the defendant. Typically, a 2 ½ year prison sentence and fines up to $1,000, probation, substance abuse treatment and counseling. If the crime happens when a protective order is in place, the sentence is elevated up to 5 years and $5,000 in fines.


Because domestic laws can sometimes get complicated, it may also be a good idea to consult an experienced domestic violence lawyer if you have questions about your specific situation.

Next Steps: Search for a Local Attorney

Contact a qualified attorney.