Civil Protection Orders in D.C.

The issuance of a civil protection order (CPO) against you 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 CPOs:  What is a CPO?  What is a temporary protection order (TPO)?  How do I file a petition for a CPO?  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?

What is a CPO?  

A civil protection order (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.   

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 relationship.  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, (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 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 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 can you contest that?]

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?

Many parties will not be represented by counsel.   These cases are usually resolved that day.  Although the judge will typically 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.  

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.