Predicting Legal Resolutions in Domestic Violence Cases

Marny Rivera, André B. Rosay, Darryl S. Wood, and Katherine TePas

Rivera, Marny; Rosay, André B.; Wood, Darryl S.; and TePas, Katherine. (Fall 2009). "Predicting Legal Resolutions in Domestic Violence Cases." Alaska Justice Forum 26(3): 1, 8–12. This article discusses characteristics of assaults in domestic violence incidents reported to Alaska State Troopers — reports, suspects, victims, victim-suspect relationships, and incidents — and the degree to which they influenced prosecution of domestic violence cases. Characteristics that predicted prosecution generally included the following: severity of the incident or corroboration of the victims’ description of events, thorough investigation and/or interrogation practices, intimate partner relationship between victim and suspect, and the incident occurring in an area with a VPSO or VPO program. Characteristics that significantly predicted prosecution can be used as the basis for modifications in policy and/or practice to enhance prosecution of domestic violence cases in Alaska.

Introduction

The adoption of such policies as mandatory arrest, pro-arrest, and no-drop prosecution has changed the arrest and prosecution practices in domestic violence cases. Pro-arrest refers to arrest being preferred, but not required. No-drop prosecution allows the prosecutor, with or without the cooperation of the victim, to decide if the evidence merits going forward. Prosecution and conviction practices were the focus of a meta-analysis by Joel Garner and Christopher Maxwell in Criminal Justice Review 34(1) in 2009. They looked at 135 published reports emphasizing prosecution and/or conviction of intimate partner and other forms of domestic violence. These researchers found that 34 percent of reports to law enforcement of intimate partner violence (IPV) were prosecuted, and 59 percent of arrests for IPV were prosecuted. Overall, 51 percent of prosecuted cases resulted in conviction. They concluded that prosecution for IPV was not rare, but acknowledged that prosecution rates varied considerably across jurisdictions. They also acknowledged that the data in their 2009 study did not provide enough information to identify factors that predict prosecution and conviction of IPV. Identification of such predictive factors is important because these factors may explain jurisdictional variation in the prosecution of domestic violence cases, and may also suggest policies and practices for enhancing prosecution rates.

A recent analysis of prosecution for assaults in domestic violence incidents reported to Alaska State Troopers (AST or Troopers) found that prosecution rates in Alaska were even higher than the national average prosecution rates reported by Garner and Maxwell. Data from the study of assaults in domestic violence incidents reported to AST included detailed characteristics associated with these incidents, as well as prosecution data from the Alaska Department of Law. These data allowed for the computation of prosecution and conviction rates, as well as an analysis of characteristics predicting prosecution of domestic violence assaults. The results of those analyses are presented here following a summary of domestic violence statutes in Alaska and descriptive statistics for the characteristics examined as predictors of prosecution and conviction.

Summary of Alaska’s Assault Statutes

The findings here come from a study of 1,281 Trooper reports (not including reports to local or municipal police) of assaults in domestic violence incidents in 2004 that resulted in at least one assault charge. Alaska’s criminal code defines assault in terms of first, second, third, and fourth degrees (Alaska Statutes §§11.41.200, 11.41.210, 11.41.220, and 11.41.230). First, second, and third degree assault are class A, B, and C felonies, respectively, and fourth degree assault is a class A misdemeanor. The main distinctions between the degrees of assault relate to the level of intent and seriousness of resulting physical injury.

In this study we focus on assaults in domestic violence incidents between household members. Household member, as broadly defined in Alaska Statue §18.66.990, includes adults or minors who are current or former spouses, living together or who have lived together, dating or who have dated, engaging in or who have engaged in a sexual relationship, related to each other up to the fourth degree of consanguinity, related or formerly related by marriage, or who have a child together. Unrelated individuals residing together as roommates, and live-in caregivers, also fall under this definition.

The Sample

A subsample of 1,095 cases involving one victim and one suspect was used to conduct analyses to predict legal resolutions. Of the 1,095 cases, 874 (80%) were referred for prosecution and 753 (86% of referred cases) were accepted for prosecution. The conviction rate was 54 percent for reported cases, 68 percent for referred cases, and 79 percent for accepted cases. (See Table 1.)

Table 1. Number of Cases by Stage, for Cases with only One Suspect and One Victim

Report Characteristics

Several report characteristics were examined as predictors of prosecution: time between the assault incident and the report of the incident to law enforcement, person reporting the assault, Trooper detachment area receiving the report, agency reported to, time to case closure, total charges per report, and number of witnesses per report. The majority of cases (84%) were reported on the same day as the incident and the victim reported the incident in 58 percent of cases. Most reports (83%) were made in Trooper detachments B (Southcentral Alaska), C (Western Alaska), or D (Interior Alaska). In 80 percent of cases, AST was the first agency notified of the domestic violence assault. In the remaining 21 percent of cases the report was most often received by a Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) or Village Police Officer (VPO), and less often by a local police department. (Percentages may total to more than 100% due to rounding.) Over half (51%) of the cases were closed between zero and 19 days (the median time to closure for all cases). The majority of domestic violence assaults (60%) involved a single charge, and in 58 percent of cases there was only one witness. (See Table 2).

Table 2. Coding for and Frequencies of Report Characteristics Predicting Legal Resolutions

Victim Characteristics

In over half of the cases, the victim was Caucasian (52%) and under 32 years of age (52%). The victim was female in 73 percent of the cases. Most victims (66%) did not use alcohol or drugs prior to the assault in domestic violence incident. Seventy-three percent of the victims contacted no one prior to reporting the assault to law enforcement. In the majority of cases (96%), the victim was present upon Trooper arrival. The victim was interviewed in 97 percent of cases, and most victims (86%) cooperated with the AST investigation. In 60 percent of cases victims suffered documented injuries as a result of the assault in domestic violence incident, but in 40 percent of cases victims did not suffer injuries or their injuries were not documented in the report. (See Table 3.)

Table 3. Coding for and Frequencies of Victim Characteristics Predicting Legal Resolutions

Suspect Characteristics

Just over half of the suspects (52%) were Caucasian. Seventy-nine percent were male and 52 percent were in the 12 to 32 years age group. Fifty-eight percent of suspects used alcohol or drugs prior to the assault. Most suspects (77%) were present upon the Trooper’s arrival at the scene and were interviewed as part of the Trooper’s investigation. The suspect admitted guilt or gave a full confession in 57 percent of cases. In 7 percent of cases the suspect was known to have violated a Domestic Violence Protection Order (DVPO), conditions of release, or conditions of probation. (See Table 4.)

Table 4. Coding for and Frequencies of Suspect Characteristics Predicting Legal Resolutions

Victim-Suspect Characteristics

In terms of victim-suspect relationship, 67 percent of assaults in domestic violence incidents involved intimate partners while 33 percent involved other family members. Victims and suspects shared common living arrangements in 75 percent of cases. Most assaults in domestic violence incidents (85%) were intraracial—that is between a victim and a suspect of the same race—and 15 percent of cases were interracial—between persons of different races. In 59 percent of cases the victim and suspect were in a different age group. (See Table 5.)

Table 5. Coding for and Frequencies of Victim-Suspect Characteristics Predicting Legal Resolutions

Incident Characteristics

A number of incident characteristics were examined as predictors of prosecution. In 64 percent of cases the victim and suspect came into contact by invitation (either from the victim or the suspect) while in 36 percent of cases the suspect made a forced entry. In 41 percent of cases, a child was present at the time of the assault in domestic violence incident. Suspects used a weapon in five percent of cases. Twenty-eight percent of victims responded aggressively to the domestic violence assault. Victims remained at the scene following 75 percent of assaults in domestic violence incidents. Alcohol and/or drug use was a reported precipitating factor that led to the assault in domestic violence incident in 22 percent of cases, and jealousy was a reported precipitating factor in 14 percent of cases. The majority of assaults in domestic violence incidents (87%) took place in a private location and involved physical assaults (89%). Stalking behavior was reported in 7 percent of cases. (See Table 6.)

Table 6. Coding for and Frequencies of Incident Characteristics Predicting Legal Resolutions

Predicting Legal Resolutions

Several characteristics of domestic violence incidents were examined as potential predictors of referral, acceptance for prosecution, and conviction: reports to law enforcement of the domestic violence incident, suspects, victims, victim-suspect relationships, and incidents. The analyses involved a three-phase procedure for each type of legal resolution (referral, acceptance, and conviction). In the first phase, individual characteristics within each category were analyzed as predictors of the three legal resolutions using bivariate logistic regression. In the second phase, significant individual predictors of legal resolutions in each category (reports, suspects, victims, etc.) were analyzed using multivariate logistic regression. In the third phase, characteristics found to be significant predictors from phase two, were analyzed across all five categories using multivariate logistic regression to produce a full model of predictors.

Referral

Characteristics that did not predict referral of cases for prosecution. The full model used to predict referral of cases for prosecution included several predictor characteristics found to be significant when analyzed with other characteristics from their respective categories (i.e., reports, suspect, victims, etc.), but not all of these were found to be significant predictors of referral when examined individually and included in the full model. Characteristics analyzed in the full model that did not significantly predict referral of cases for prosecution included: the person who reported the incident (victim or other), the first agency notified (AST, VPSO, VPO, or local police department), the total number of charges associated with the report (one or more than one), victim use of alcohol or drugs, victim injuries, the racial combination of the victim and suspect (intraracial or interracial), the victim’s response characteristic (stayed or left the scene), the type of assault (physical or not physical), and precipitating factors to the assault in domestic violence incident (did or did not involve alcohol and/or drugs, did or did not involve jealousy).

Characteristics significantly predicting referral of cases for prosecution. The characteristics predicting referral of domestic violence incidents for prosecution are presented in order of greatest impact to least impact on referral. Each of these characteristics was found to significantly predict referral of domestic violence incidents for prosecution when the other predictive characteristics included in the model were held constant. Cases where the victim was interviewed by a Trooper were 5.8 times more likely to be referred for prosecution than cases where the victim was not interviewed by a Trooper. Cases involving domestic violence incidents that took place between a suspect and victim who were intimate partners were 2.9 times more likely to be referred for prosecution than cases where the victim and suspect were not intimate partners (i.e., family members such as siblings, parent/child, or extended family, etc.). When the suspect was reported to have used alcohol or drugs prior to the domestic violence incident, cases were 2.5 times more likely to be referred for prosecution than in cases with no report of a suspect’s use of alcohol and/or drugs. Cases that were closed relatively quickly (less than or equal to a median of 19 days) were 2.3 times more likely to be referred for prosecution than cases that took longer to close. Cases in which the victim and suspect lived together were 2.1 times more likely to be referred for prosecution than cases where the victim and suspect were not cohabiting. Cases with relatively older suspects (older than the mean of 32 years) were two times more likely to be referred for prosecution than cases with younger suspects. (See Table 7.)

Table 7. Characteristics Significantly Predicting Referral for Prosecution

Acceptance

Characteristics that did not predict acceptance of cases for prosecution. Characteristics analyzed in the full model that did not significantly predict acceptance of cases for prosecution included: the time between the incident and the report (one or more days or the same day on which it occurred), the first agency notified (AST, VPSO, VPO, or local police department), the suspect’s use or non-use of alcohol or drugs, the victim’s gender (female or male), the victim’s race (minority or Caucasian), the victim and suspect relationship (intimate partners or other family), the victim and suspect’s living arrangement (common or separate), and a precipitating factor to the assault in domestic violence incident (did or did not involve alcohol and/or drugs, did or did not involve jealousy).

Characteristics significantly predicting acceptance of cases for prosecution. The characteristics that significantly predicted whether cases were referred for prosecution were not the same characteristics that predicted whether referred cases were accepted for prosecution. Each of the following characteristics was found to significantly predict acceptance of domestic violence incidents for prosecution when the other predictive characteristics included in the model were held constant. One of the strongest predictors of acceptance for prosecution was whether the suspect admitted guilt or gave a full confession. Cases where suspects admitted guilt or gave a full confession were 3.1 times more likely to be accepted for prosecution, and cases with relatively more charges (cases with more than one charge) were 2.7 times more likely to be accepted for prosecution than cases with only a single charge. When the initial report of domestic violence was made by a person other than the victim, cases were 2.3 times more likely to be accepted for prosecution. Cases in which the victim suffered injury were 2.3 times more likely to be accepted for prosecution than cases in which the victim did not suffer injury. Cases in which a child was reportedly present were 2.3 times more likely to be accepted for prosecution than cases with no report of a child’s presence. If the suspect was male, the case was 2.2 times more likely to be accepted for prosecution than if the suspect was female. (See Table 8.)

Table 8. Characteristics Significantly Predicting Acceptance for Prosecution

Conviction

Characteristics that did not predict conviction. One characteristic analyzed in the full model that did not significantly predict conviction was the suspect’s age (12 to 32 years or 33 years and older).

Characteristics significantly predicting conviction. The characteristics that predicted conviction in cases of domestic violence incidents included some characteristics that predicted referral and acceptance. It is important to note that the term “conviction” used in this article refers to any conviction for any charge (not necessarily a domestic violence charge), and includes plea bargains, guilty pleas, and convictions resulting from a bench or jury trial. Each of the following characteristics was found to significantly predict conviction of domestic violence incidents when the other predictive characteristics included in the model were held constant. Cases first reported to a VPSO, a VPO, or a local police department were 2.4 times more likely to result in a conviction than cases first reported to AST. Cases in which the suspect was reported to have used alcohol or drugs prior to the domestic violence incident were 2.3 times more likely to result in conviction than cases with no report of a suspect’s alcohol or drug use. Cases were 1.8 times more likely to result in a conviction if there was more than one charge involved, or if the suspect admitted guilt or gave a full confession. (See Table 9.)

Table 9. Characteristics Significantly Predicting Conviction

Conclusion

Based on our analyses, a number of report, victim, suspect, victim-suspect, and incident characteristics predict prosecution of assaults in domestic violence incidents reported to AST. The identification of these characteristics creates an opportunity to modify policy and/or practice in a way that enhances prosecution of these types of assaults. In the development of policy and/or practice changes, the impact of characteristics predicting prosecution at each level (referral, acceptance, and conviction) is equally important to consider: cases must progress through the initial stages of prosecution in order to result in conviction. Therefore, the majority of characteristics that predicted conviction also predicted acceptance or referral of cases.

The presence of certain characteristics seemed to increase the gravity of a case and heighten the likelihood of prosecution. Cases more likely to be prosecuted include those in which the victim was injured, there was more than one charge, and/or the report to law enforcement was made by someone other than the victim. Policies for investigation of assaults in domestic violence incidents should ensure extensive documentation of victim’s injuries, corroboration of the victim’s description of events, and discovery of all associated, justified charges. A victim’s injuries and a report by someone other than the victim can corroborate the victim’s description of events. Victim interviews and suspect admission of guilt also made prosecution more likely. Rates of victim interviews by Troopers were high (97%), but additional efforts could be made to interview a larger percentage of known suspects. (77% of suspects were interviewed.) It is important to train law enforcement officers to conduct thorough suspect interviews and interrogations and to employ reliable interviewing techniques that encourage suspects to admit guilt or give a full confession.

Other cases more likely to result in prosecution involved suspects who used alcohol or drugs prior to the assault in domestic violence incident. Therefore, it is essential for Troopers to document suspects’ substance use every time it is indicated. Also, cases involving male suspects and assaults between intimate partners who live together were more likely to be prosecuted than other cases. As noted previously, the definition of domestic violence in Alaska statute covers a range of relationships. Troopers make arrests for assaults in domestic violence incidents where the victim-suspect relationship is one of several identified in the statute. However, it is more likely that domestic violence assaults between intimate partners who live together will be prosecuted than assaults between persons involved in other statutorily defined relationships. This may suggest a tendency on the part of prosecutors to view intimate partner domestic violence as an offense warranting more urgent prosecution than other forms of domestic violence.

In terms of conviction, assaults in domestic violence incidents that took place in communities with a VPSO or a VPO had a greater likelihood of resulting in conviction than other cases. This supports similar findings identifying predictors of prosecution and conviction in sexual assault cases reported to AST, as well as findings noted by Wood, et al. (see “Attrition in Cases of Violence Against Women Reported to the Alaska State Troopers” in this issue), and findings by Wood and Rosay (see “Case Attrition of Sexual Violence Offenses: Empirical Findings” in the Spring/Summer 2008 issue of the Alaska Justice Forum). Increased likelihood of prosecution and conviction for cases first reported to a VPSO or a VPO highlights the importance of the VPSO and VPO programs. This finding suggests that the resources provided by these first responders (i.e., reduced response time and enhanced investigation) increases conviction of assaults in domestic violence incidents. The impact of VPSO and VPO programs on conviction, as well as factors that make intimate partner violence different from other forms of domestic violence, should be examined further. Additional studies could assist in better understanding the variation in prosecution of domestic violence assault cases and the policies and practices that enhance prosecution and conviction rates.

Marny Rivera is an Assistant Professor of the Justice Center. André Rosay is the Director of the Justice Center. Darryl Wood is an Assistant Professor at Washington State University Vancouver. Katherine TePas is a Program Coordinator with the Alaska State Troopers. This project was supported by Grant No. 2005-WG-BX-0011 awarded by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Points of view in this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.