How serious is a General Sessions level domestic violence case?

General Sessions is the name for the criminal court in South Carolina of unlimited jurisdiction. That means that it is the court designed to prosecute major felonies, and dish out severe punishments like years in prison (or even the death penalty). Compare this local Magistrate or City courts that are jurisdictionally limited to thirty day jail sentences for most cases.

South Carolina recently revamped its criminal domestic violence laws creating three new tiers for first offense domestic violence. All three of them can be referred to General Sessions, but all CDVHAN, DV 1st and DV 2nd cases must be prosecuted in that court.

Everyone charged with a domestic violence case referred to General Sessions is at a real risk of prison time. There are a lot of reasons for this:.

  1. The fact that the charges are all serious, carrying months or years of prison time.
  2. The fact that the prosecutor may not necessarily be an experienced domestic violence prosecutor, and try to treat the case like a typical assault case (meaning no consideration for isolated incidents, police zero tolerance policies, no actual harm, etc.).
  3. The fact that the judge may have spent the week prior to your case sentencing people to decades long prison sentences for offenses like drug trafficking, armed robbery, and burglary, and is in the mindset where they think that "only" giving a domestic violence offender a few months or few years by comparison is an easy sentence.

A major pitfall for defendants under the new law is going to be the referral of DV 2nd cases into General Sessions. The law does not require that there be any actual injury or attempt to injure in order to bring this level of charge. Still, many first offenses will be brought at this level which carries a penalty of up to three years in the South Carolina Department of Corrections. We expect police to continue to make arrests based on the "rude or unwanted touching" standard imposed under the older CDV law, but now with a potential penalty enhanced thirty-six times for the following types of cases:

  • cases involving allegations of holding phones, taking phones, hiding phones, or throwing phones
  • cases involving infants, children, or teenagers on the premises or even neighboring children who the police think might have heard part of an argument
  • cases with a prior DV or CDV conviction in the past ten years

We expect that the severity of this charge along with the nature of General Session prosecution will take many defendants by surprise, especially defendants with no real experience in the criminal just system and who otherwise are law abiding, employed, middle-class citizens.

In short, you should take any DV charge referred into General Sessions incredibly seriously. You are facing a real risk of a prison sentence (not just county jail or weekend time) along with a serious criminal record. Everyone charged with this level of offense absolutely needs to consult with a lawyer prior to their initial appearance date.

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