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Criminal Complaints

Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Reviewed October 2009

Is what happened to me a crime?

It may be. The law says that physical abuse is a crime. Verbal threats can also be a crime. Emotional abuse by itself is not a crime.

If your boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse did something physical to you or your child without permission, that is probably a crime. If they threatened to do something physical to you or your child, that also may be a crime.

"Emotional" abuse can be just as painful as physical abuse. Sometimes emotional abuse is more painful than physical abuse. But emotional abuse is not a crime.

A verbal threat can be a crime if it is a threat to physically hurt you, your child, or someone else. For example, it is a crime if your partner says:

  • they are going to hit you or kill you,
  • they have a way to do it, and
  • their saying it scares you.

It is not a crime for your partner to threaten to do something that would not hurt you physically, like report you to the Department of Children and Families (the agency that used to be called the Department of Social Services).

What are some examples of when domestic violence is a crime?

The Massachusetts General Laws say which actions are crimes. The most common domestic violence crimes are:

  • Threat to Commit a Crime: The person who abused you says things that make you afraid for your safety or your child's safety, and they really are able to hurt you or your child physically.
  • Assault: The person who abused you tries to physically hurt you or your child. They do not have to actually touch you or hurt you for it to be an assault. It is an assault if they try to hurt you and make you scared. They may try to hurt you by holding their fist in front of your face or throwing things at you.
  • Assault and Battery: The person who abused you touches you or your child without permission. Battery can be anything from a slap with an open hand to punching, kicking, choking, or other kinds of unwanted touching.
  • Assault and Battery with a Dangerous Weapon: The person who abused you touches you or your child on purpose with a "weapon" and makes you or your child afraid you will be hurt. The weapon does not have to be a gun or knife or anything else that you usually think of as a weapon. Assault and battery with a dangerous weapon includes kicking you with a boot, hitting you with a car, burning you with cigarettes, or using a heavy object to hit you. This crime may be charged as a felony.
  • Assault with the Intent to Rape: The person who abused you tries to rape you.
  • Rape: The person who abused you makes you have sex against your will by physically forcing you or threatening to hurt you if you refuse. It is still rape even if you are married to the person.
  • Stalking: It is “stalking” when the person who abused you does things over and over that threaten you with physical injury and would scare or upset a reasonable person. An example of stalking is when someone follows you to work and calls you there several times to say that he is watching you and is going to hurt you.
  • Criminal Harassment: The person who abused you keeps doing things that seriously scare you or upset you. If the things the person who abused you is doing would seriously scare or upset a reasonable person, it is called “criminal harassment”. The kinds of things someone might do to seriously scare or upset you include calling you on the phone, sending you emails, faxing you, instant messaging you, or text messaging you again and again.
  • Violation of a 209A Protection Order: You went to court and got a 209A Abuse Prevention Order against the person. They then abuse you, contact you directly or indirectly, or do not stay away from you like the court-ordered. In other words, they “violate” the order. For example, the order says that they can not contact you in any way, but the person who abused you calls you, goes to your house, sends you mail, or tries to see you, or send messages to you.

Sometimes when you are living with domestic violence, you also have to cope with other crimes like:

  • Kidnapping;
  • Intimidation of a Witness;
  • Annoying Telephone Calls;
  • Attempt to Commit a Crime;
  • Disorderly Conduct;
  • Disturbing the Peace;
  • Criminal Trespass;
  • Breaking and Entering;
  • Cruelty to Animals; and/or
  • Willful and Malicious Destruction of Property.


It is also a crime to abuse an elder or child. See Is domestic violence a crime?

What can I do if what happened to me was a crime?

You can talk to the police. The police will write a report. Ask for a copy of the report. You may need the report in the future. If you talk to the police, they may arrest the person who abused you and they may end up in criminal court. The police may not arrest him.

Dial 911 if you want to call the police while the abuse is happening or right afterward. If you want to talk to the police later, call the police non-emergency number or go to the police station.

You can also file a criminal complaint yourself if you want the abuser to go to criminal court and maybe to jail. Go to your local district court and tell the clerk that you want to file a criminal complaint.

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