Civil Protection Orders in D.C.

The issuance of a civil protection order (CPO) against you in Washington, D.C. can have serious consequences. There is the social stigma and the restriction on your movements. The CPO can prevent you from advancing in your career.  Job applicants, for example, are frequently asked whether they have ever had a restraining order taken out against them. Finally, being the subject of a CPO can lead to criminal charges if you are accused of violating the order.  

Provided below is everything you need to know about restraining orders:  What is a CPO?  What is a temporary protection order (TPO)?  How do I file a petition for a CPO?  How do I obtain a CPO/TPO/restraining order during the Covid-19 pandemic? How is a CPO served?  What happens at the initial CPO hearing?  How do I defend myself against a petition for a CPO?  Will I need a lawyer to represent me? Should I file a “cross-petition”? Should my CPO hearing trail my criminal case? Can the request for a restraining order be denied? How much does it cost to file for a restraining order? How long does a restraining order remain in effect? What information is needed to file for a restraining order?

What is a Civil Protection Order (CPO)?  

A Civil Protection Order — or CPO — is a court order directing a person to refrain from certain conduct – typically some form of harassing, assaultive, threatening, or other type of behavior involving “interpersonal violence.”  Such behavior can also involve “stalking” by a person who is not in a domestic relationship with the petitioner or sexual assault.

Also known as a restraining order, a CPO is usually issued upon “good cause” in the context of some type of “domestic relationship.”  In other words, the parties live together, are related or are in a romantic or sexual relationship, or have a child in common. The typical CPO lasts for up to a year and can be renewed for another year upon a finding of good cause.  It is a criminal offense to violate a CPO.  The maximum penalty for violating a CPO or for being held in contempt of court is 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.   D.C. Code § 16-1005(g).  

The “petitioner” is the person asking for the order.  The “respondent” is the subject of the order.   In cases in which the respondent also requests a CPO against the petititioner, the respondent becomes known as the “cross-petitioner.”

The typical CPO directs the respondent to “refrain from committing or threatening to commit criminal offenses against the petitioner and other protected persons.”  It can require the respondent to “stay away from” specified persons and places; to participate in psychiatric, medical treatment or counseling programs; to relinquish possession or use of property; and to relinquish possession of any firearms. Finally, a CPO can award temporary custody of a minor child and provide for visitation rights that protect the safety of the petitioner.  D.C. Code § 16-1005(c). 

D.C. Superior Court can only adjudicate cases in which (1) the petitioner lives, works or attends school in the District of Columbia, (2) the petitioner is under the legal custody of a D.C. govemmental agency, or (3) the underlying offense occurred in the District.  D.C. Code § 16-1006.  

What is a Temporary Protection Order (TPO)?

If the judge who reviews the petition for a CPO finds that “the safety or welfare of the petitioner or a household member is immediately endangered by the respondent,” the court can issue a temporary protection order.  Valid for up to 14 days or until the CPO hearing can be held, the TPO can be issued ex parte— in other words, with only one party being heard.   The TPO can be extended in 14-day increments or for longer periods with the consent of both parties.  If the respondent fails to appear for the hearing, the TPO will remain in effect until the respondent is served with the CPO.  D.C. Code § 16-1004.  

How do I file a petition for a CPO?

People who want to ask for a CPO should go to the Domestic Violence Intake Center (DVIC) on the Fourth Floor of D.C. Superior Court, 500 Indiana Avenue, NW. After filling out some paperwork in which you detail any allegations of criminal conduct, you will meet with an advocate.  You will also appear in front of a judge that day if you are requesting immediate protection under a TPO.  

How do I obtain a CPO/TPO/restraining order during the Covid-19 pandemic?

Although the Covid-19 pandemic complicates the process somewhat, it is still possible to obtain a CPO/TPO/restraining order during the court shut-down. People interested in seeking a protective order should contact the Domestic Violence Division (DVD) Clerk’s Office by phone at 202-879-0157 or by email at Alternatively, “petitioners” can contact the D.C. Safe Crisis Response Team at 800-407-5048. Both organizations will assist the person seeking the protection (the “petitioner”) swear out the necessary affidavit.

The request for a TPO will be heard remotely. In other words, both the judge and the petitioner will participate by phone or videoconference. After reviewing the affidavit and asking questions, the judge will decide whether there is sufficient cause to believe that a criminal offense has occurred and/or protection is necessary.

If the judge decides to issue the order, the court will set a date for a full hearing. Currently being scheduled for early 2021, the hearing will provide the target of the order (the “respondent”) with an opportunity to contest the allegations. The respondent will still need to be served with a copy of the notice to appear. (See below.) The TPO/protective order will be in effect until this hearing. A violation of the order could result in criminal charges.

How is a CPO served?

In order for the court to issue a CPO, the respondent must be served with a copy of the petition, the notice of hearing, and an order to appear.  The petitioner is not permitted to serve the petition him- or herself.   The documents can be served by anyone who is at least 18 years old and is not mentioned in the petition.  Valid service does not require the respondent to accept the papers or to read them.

What happens at the initial CPO hearing?

CPO hearings are held in courtroom 113 or 114 of D.C. Superior Court.  Although the subpoena will require you to arrive at 8:30 am to check in, the judge usually does not take the bench until after 9:00 am.  Petitioners should sit on the left side of the courtroom; respondents on the right.  You should avoid any contact with the other party, including eye contact.  

Both parties will meet separately with an “attorney negotiator” before appearing before the judge.  The role of the attorney negotiator is to see if the parties would be willing to agree to some type of resolution short of a full hearing.  You should be aware that the attorney negotiator is not your lawyer and cannot give you legal advice.

If the petitioner is not present at the time the case is called, the petition will be dismissed.  If the respondent is not present, the court will issue the CPO by default. 

How do I defend myself against a petition for a CPO?

There are four different ways to resolve a CPO petition.  

The first option is to simply agree to the CPO.   Although the court and the petitioner will both be happy to resolve the matter without a hearing, it is hard to see how this could be in your interests.  

The second option is to enter into a “consent CPO without admissions.” This means that the court will issue the CPO without arriving at an adverse finding of facts.  

The third option – typically the best option depending on the circumstances — is to contest the CPO.  This will result in a hearing, either that day or at a later scheduled date.  A CPO hearing is just like a trial you would see on T.V. Both sides are allowed to present evidence – that is, testimony, documents and tangible objects that tend to prove or disprove the existence of an alleged fact.   The petitioner goes first.  Both sides are also allowed to make opening and closing statements and to cross-examine witnesses from the opposing party.   The burden is on the petitioner to prove beyond a preponderance of the evidence – that is, more likely than not – that the respondent committed a criminal offense. 

The final option is to enter into a private agreement between the parties  to resolve the matter without a CPO.  The benefit of this approach for the respondent is that it avoids potential criminal liability. 

Will I need a lawyer to represent me?

You have the absolute right to represent yourself at a restraining order hearing, and, in fact, many parties will appear pro se (that is, without counsel). Such cases are usually resolved that day.  Although the judge can be expected to step in to protect the interests of both parties, this is no substitute for experienced counsel, both to advise you during the process and, if necessary, to contest the CPO at a hearing.  The rules of evidence are complicated and, in many cases, counterintuitive.  The rules for admitting exhibits, for example, can be complicated. So too are the rules that prohibit the introduction of hearsay evidence.

Should I file a cross-petition if served with a CPO?

If you yourself were the subject of domestic violence at the hands of the CPO petitioner, you can file a “cross-petition” asking the court to issue a protection order of your own.  In this case, you become both the “respondent” and the “cross-petitioner.”  The two petitions will be adjudicated at the same time. In addition to protecting your safety, the filing of this cross-petition could improve your negotiating leverage during the CPO proceedings.

Should my CPO hearing “trail” my criminal case?

CPO hearings are separate from any criminal charges that might result from the same series of events.  In cases in which the government has also instituted criminal proceedings against you, the standard practice is for the CPO hearing to “trail” (i.e., to go after) the criminal case.  Depending on the situation, this might not always be in your best interest.  Sometimes it might make sense for the CPO hearing to go first.  For example, this would allow you to get a preview of the petitioner/complainant’s case against you and, with the proceedings transcribed, to lock the petitioner/complainant into the testimony.  

Can the request for a protection order be denied?

Absolutely. There are two primary reasons a court might use its discretion to deny the request for a CPO. First, the court may not have “jurisdiction” (i.e., the power) to issue the order. For example, the case may not have a sufficient connection to the District. Or the court may find that, in non-stalking cases, the parties were not involved in a “domestic relationship.” Second, the court may decide after a hearing that no crime occurred.

How much does it cost to get a restraining order?

There are no costs associated with seeking a CPO in D.C.

How long does a restraining order remain in effect?

The typical CPO remains in effect for a year. This can be extended by another year either by mutual consent or by court order. The parties can also agree to a shorter period of time (six months, for example).

What information is needed to file for a restraining order?

Although people tend to equate the term “evidence” with physical evidence (for example, photographs or fingerprints), a person’s testimony before a court also constitutes evidence. This means that a court’s decision to grant or deny a request for a protective order can be based on a person’s words alone. In fact, given the ad hoc nature of a TPO hearing and the difficulty locating tangible evidence at short notice, these preliminary hearings tend to be limited to pure testimony.

CPO hearings, by contrast, tend to be more formal. With longer lead-time to prepare, and in light of the greater stakes involved, parties will normally supplement oral testimony with whatever tangible evidence they can produce. For example, a party might seek to introduce phone records or emails to corroborate allegations of harassment or stalking.

Last update: September 3, 2020

Do you need legal assistance with a Civil Protection Order (CPO) in Washington, D.C.? Contact Jamison Koehler today.

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