Domestic violence is a difficult topic to navigate. If you have never experienced it, it may be challenging for you to find the right things to say when the topic comes up. Maybe you say nothing at all. On the other hand, if you have experienced domestic violence, the topic might pose uncomfortable issues in other ways, making it arduous to discuss. Regardless, if domestic violence is the topic, not many folks have the words to make it through that conversation with ease. In the interest of observing Domestic Violence Awareness Month[1], I am sharing my story to raise awareness about the lasting impact of domestic violence and mandatory arrest laws.

Although “wife beating” was made illegal in all states in 1920, the criminal justice system failed to recognize domestic violence as a public offense for decades.[2] Throughout the second wave feminist movement in the 1960s, public awareness of domestic violence and “the plight of battered women” increased.[3] During that time, efforts mostly[AO1]  concentrated on creating resources for “battered women.”[4] In the 1960s and 70s, there was little perceptible movement regarding the role of the criminal justice system in domestic violence. One impediment here was the requirement that police officers could only arrest an individual for misdemeanor offenses without a warrant if the crime was committed in the presence of a police officer.[5] By the mid-1980s, pressure from women’s advocacy groups resulted in most states creating an exception to the “in presence” requirement for misdemeanor domestic violence offenses, allowing arrest if the police officer had probable cause to believe a crime had been committed.[6] This is how mandatory arrest laws began to take shape. On May 11, 1984, the Iowa General Assembly approved a bill for “an Act relating to the duties and responsibilities of a peace officer to a victim of domestic abuse and providing a penalty.”[7] The Act described in that bill was for a mandatory arrest provision.

On June 8th, 2011, I was arrested and charged with Class B domestic abuse assault causing bodily injury. My boyfriend and I got into an argument at my apartment. We had both been drinking, so the disagreement escalated, and it went to a place that we hadn’t experienced before. He grabbed my phone and was trying to keep it away from me. In my efforts to get my phone back from him, I scratched him. The incidental scratching angered him even more, so he threw my phone and lunged to restrain me so I couldn’t retrieve it. When he was restraining me, I panicked, and my anger turned into fear. He was much more than a foot taller than me, and he was significantly stronger than me. While both of us were yelling at one another earlier in the argument, once the dynamic shifted to him pinning me down on the bed, I began crying and screaming, pleading for him to stop. I had no concept of time from this point, but I know it wasn’t too long before we heard a knock on the door, and it was the police.

Instantly, I was relieved because I felt as though the police were coming to my rescue. Some officer whisked my boyfriend away, and I tried to tell the other officer what happened, but the officer cuffed me and told me because I had scratched my boyfriend, I was under arrest for domestic abuse. I was taken to the Urbandale Police precinct for further questioning, and I was still certain they would let me go after I got a chance to fully explain. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. From the Urbandale precinct, they put me back in a squad car, and I was sent to the Polk County Jail. I spent the night in jail. In the morning, I attended my bond hearing. My bond was set at $1000, and I had a friend come to post my bail. I hired an attorney and attended my arraignment on July 19, 2011. At this appearance, my case was dismissed without prejudice.

I know now that I shouldn’t have let the situation escalate the way it did. In subsequent relationships, I’ve learned to walk away in the rare event that an argument feels like it has the potential to get dangerous. I don’t mean to minimize my role in this dispute, but even looking back at it now, I can still feel the terror. What’s more, I will never shake the shock I felt when I learned that I was being arrested, too. This was a harrowing, traumatic, and defining experience for me. For years I internalized a heavy shroud of shame. Shadows of doubt followed me, making me question if I was even a victim[8] given that I was arrested.

More than a decade later, while applying for law school, I realized I would have to recount this event in the form of a Character & Fitness (C&F) addendum. In reporting any event that resulted in the applicant being arrested, charged, or summonsed on a C&F addendum, it’s best to disclose.[9] What’s more, the disclosure must strike a delicate balance between telling the facts as they happened, showing genuine remorse, and admitting accountability. Writing the disclosure was an emotional challenge for me, but I had to do my best to not let my emotions bleed into my account of the facts.

Once all my applications were in, one of the schools to which I applied invited me to an admissions interview. The professor and I exchanged pleasantries, and the interview felt like it was off to a great start. The first question he asked me, though, was to tell him about my C&F addendum. I felt a thunderclap of anxiety for an instant. The professor was kind and nonjudgmental in the way he asked, and I sensed a receptive demeanor from him, so I composed myself and essentially restated the contents of my C&F addendum. The professor told me that he had been a judge for decades before working for the university and the first thing he said when I finished recounting the event was, “Oh, well, Iowa is a mandatory arrest state, so I see why this happened to you. I’m sorry that it happened to you, but that’s just how it usually goes with mandatory arrest states.” Then the professor went on to explain what that meant because I told him I had never heard of a mandatory arrest state before.[AO2]  He also mentioned that, from what he observed as a judge in a mandatory arrest state, police almost always arrest both parties in a domestic violence case—they do it as a way of scaring both of the parties to teach them a lesson and think twice before reoffending.

I am incredibly grateful to the professor from that school who interviewed me and navigated the conversation with care. Not only did he make me feel safe talking about it, but he also brought to my attention the existence of mandatory arrest laws. In a way, it was validating to know there was some sort of explanation for why I was arrested in that situation.[10] On the other hand, it stirred up a lot of other mixed feelings in me. For example, how did I not know this? And yet, how could I have known? Regardless, what happened to me is not an isolated occurrence. My case is just one of many that displays the fact pattern of an ugly unintended consequence thanks to mandatory arrest laws.[11] These laws are purportedly for the victim’s benefit, but many argue that they are harmful to victims.[12][AO3]  All things considered, in terms of what can (and does)[13] happen to others, what happened to me is close to the best-case scenario. Mandatory arrests can have a chilling effect on victims, such that they won’t call for police when they are at the hands of their partner.[14]

Mandatory arrest provisions are not the answer. What is? One approach argues for the implementation of specialized intimate partner violence units and preferred arrest policies.[15] These specialized police units prioritize officer training that gives law enforcement professionals the unique set of tools to respond appropriately to victims of domestic violence.[16] An integrated approach that specialized units provide take the problem-solving to a holistic level rather than the quick-fix that mandatory arrests seem to serve. The second prong, preferred arrest policies, “have a positive effect on batterer recidivism.”[17] Preferred arrest jurisdictions give the officer the option to listen to the suspect and consider his version of the events when weighing whether to arrest the suspect.[18] If a suspect feels like the officers are treating him equitably, he is much more likely to obey the officers’ orders and refrain from further violence.[19]

With an epidemic as unwieldy as domestic violence, it is reasonable to temper expectations and understand that changes will not happen quickly. Despite the difficulties presented with domestic violence and mandatory arrests, society must continue the path of domestic violence victim empowerment. As long as people are willing to listen to victims’ stories and amplify their voices, it will only be a matter of time until policymakers begin to understand how to systematically erase domestic violence.


[1] Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Dep’t of Homeland Sec. (Oct. 4, 2023), [].

[2] Carolyn Copps Hartley & Roxann Ryan, Prosecution Strategies in Domestic Violence Felonies: Telling the Story of Domestic Violence, Nat’l Crim. Just. Reference Serv. (Apr. 1998) [].

[3] Marion Wanless, Mandatory Arrest: A Step Toward Eradicating Domestic Violence, But Is It Enough, 1996 U. Ill. L. Rev. 533, 535 (1996).

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] H.F. 2164, 70th Gen. Assemb., (Iowa 1984).

[8] For this blog post, I will not be addressing the implications of the term “victim.” However, I find that term problematic.

[9] Character & Fitness Addenda: What Are They & What Should I Disclose?, 7Sage, [].

[10] “Since the adoption of mandatory arrest policies, the rate of female arrests has risen from a range of four to twelve percent to a much-higher fifteen to thirty percent.” Alexandra Pavlidakis, Mandatory Arrest: Past Its Prime, 49 Santa Clara L. Rev. 1201, 1218 (2009).

[11] Id.

[12] Id. at 1204; Wanless, supra note 3, at 547–50; Michael D. White et al., Beyond Mandatory Arrest: Developing a Comprehensive Response to Domestic Violence, 6 Police Prac. & Res. 261, 264 (2005); Alayna Bridgett, Mandatory-Arrest Laws and Domestic Violence: How Mandatory-Arrest Laws Hurt Survivors of Domestic Violence Rather than Help Them, 30 Health Matrix 437, 461–63 (2020).

[13] Pavlidakis supra note 10, at 1202 (“[Domestic violence] is responsible for about two million injuries and 1300 deaths. Of these injuries, nearly 550,000 require medical attention and 145,000 are severe enough to require hospitalization for one or more nights.”).

[14] Pavlidakis supra note 10, at 1222.

[15] Pavlidakis supra note 10, at 1229.

[16] Id.

[17] Pavlidakis supra note 10, at 1231.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

Friday, October 13, 2023