How Washington State Defines the “Primary Aggressor”

Domestic violence cases are fraught for many reasons. In addition to the emotional implications for everyone involved, there are legal issues that can make such cases challenging for the accused, the alleged victim, and even police and prosecutors. One such aspect of domestic violence cases is identifying the “primary aggressor:” the person alleged to pose the most serious threat of further violence.

Criteria for Determining the Primary Aggressor

Under Washington law, a police officer shall consider these factors in deciding which party was the primary aggressor: 

  • The extent of the injuries inflicted on both parties or serious threats that make either party fearful of physical injury
  • The history of domestic violence of each party, including whether the current actions are part of an ongoing abuse pattern
  • The intent of the law to protect alleged victims of domestic violence

This determination can sometimes be challenging to make. Nevertheless, it is critical because Washington law requires responding officers to arrest the individual they believe was the primary physical aggressor in a domestic violence situation. 

Sometimes, the probable cause for the arrest is the obvious signs of an injury one partner has suffered. At other times, probable cause is based on a story one partner tells more convincingly than the other.

The Importance of Context

The criteria for determining the primary aggressor can be problematic because they often come down to a subjective judgment in a heated moment. The responding officer must arrest someone, but the available information is often limited by the fact that domestic violence cases do not always have witnesses. As such, the officer must make a decision based on what they can glean from an “I said/you said” story. Depending on each partner’s communication skills, as well as the police officer’s own biases, the probability of making the wrong call about the identity of the primary aggressor can be high.

Mutual Combat vs. Primary Aggression

In some domestic violence cases, officers arrive to find both partners have suffered injuries or claim the other was the aggressor. This situation, known as “mutual combat,” makes identifying the primary aggressor especially tricky.

In mutual combat cases, officers must look for other evidence to determine who poses the greatest ongoing threat. They will consider factors such as who kept the altercation going and which party poses the more immediate threat to the other person. Even with mutual combat, officers must still choose one partner to arrest as the primary aggressor.

Implications for the Accused

In addition to undergoing an arrest and possibly spending time in jail, the accused will often receive a “no-contact order” at their first court appearance. This order legally prevents them from seeing or contacting the alleged victim. By necessity, the accused will need to move out of the family home. Even if the accuser later tells the court the order is unnecessary, it will remain in place pending further court hearings. This situation can cause tremendous emotional and financial stress for everyone involved.

Legal Defenses for the Primary Aggressor

If you are arrested as the primary aggressor in an alleged domestic altercation, the help of an experienced attorney is critical to your legal defense. Possible strategies may include:

  • Challenging the accuser’s credibility if they change their story or show a pattern of dishonesty
  • Presenting evidence that your partner injured you first, forcing you to act in self-defense
  • Arguing that the responding officer made a mistake in identifying you as the primary aggressor
  • Demonstrating your partner has substance abuse issues that contributed to the incident
  • Providing character witnesses who can speak to your non-aggressive nature

A strong defense depends on the specific details of your case. An experienced attorney will know how to build the most compelling argument that you were not the primary aggressor. With an effective legal strategy, you may be able to get the charges against you dropped.

Call Jennifer Horwitz Today

Domestic violence charges can upend your life. However, you should not give up hope. Whether you are a victim of domestic violence or someone has accused you of being the aggressor, a seasoned Seattle domestic violence attorney can help you understand your legal options. Contact Jennifer Horwitz today to learn more about defending yourself and your good name.