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The Difference Between a Protection Order and a Criminal Charge

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Being accused of a crime, especially one as serious as domestic violence or sexual assault can be a scary experience for any person. The aftermath of a criminal accusation can lead to a host of consequences, from jail time and a permanent criminal record to the imposition of a civil protection order. If you are facing these accusations, it is crucial to understand the difference between a protection order and a criminal charge.

In simple terms, a protection order is a legal injunction issued by a court to prevent further harm or harassment, often restricting the accused from contacting or approaching the victim. On the other hand, criminal charges involve the state prosecuting the accused for violating specific criminal laws, potentially leading to imprisonment, fines, or other penalties. 

What Is a Civil Protection Order?

A civil protection order, commonly referred to as a restraining order, is a legal injunction issued by a court. It requires the accused person, known as the respondent, to maintain a certain distance from another person. These preventative measures are designed to safeguard the victim, known as the petitioner, from immediate harm or intimidation by imposing legal boundaries on the respondent’s actions.

Washington residents have access to various types of protection orders, including the following:

  • Anti-Harassment Protection Orders: These protection orders are intended to protect against unwanted contact or behavior that causes substantial emotional distress. This contact must serve no legitimate or lawful purpose and be directed specifically at the petitioner to alarm, annoy, or harass them, or otherwise cause harm to their lives. The harassment could involve a single act or threat, or a repeated pattern of behavior that occurs over time.
  • Stalking Protection Orders: These orders protect petitioners against stalking behavior that has caused them to feel intimidated, frightened, threatened, under duress, or like their lives have been significantly disrupted. The respondent must know or should know that this behavior is causing these feelings within the petitioner, regardless of intent. 
  • Sexual Assault Protection Orders: Sexual assault protection orders are designed to protect victims of nonconsensual sexual conduct or penetration. Both a single incident of sexual assault or repeated sexual violence can be grounds for this type of protection order to be issued.
  • Domestic Violence Protection Orders: This type of protection order is designed to protect victims against domestic violence or threat of violence by an intimate partner or a family or household member. People can seek a domestic violence protection order on behalf of themselves or a minor or vulnerable adult who is at risk. Victims of sexual assault, harassment, or stalking committed by an intimate partner or family member would seek this type of order, rather than a generic stalking, anti-harassment, or sexual assault order.

What Is a Criminal Charge?

A criminal charge is a formal accusation made by the government asserting that a person has committed a crime. Upon being charged, the accused faces a legal process that may involve arrest, arraignment, and a series of court appearances leading to a trial. The process aims to determine the guilt or innocence of the accused.

In Washington, criminal charges can range from misdemeanors, which are less severe offenses with shorter potential jail times, to felonies, which are more serious crimes potentially resulting in longer prison sentences. A criminal defense lawyer protects the accused’s rights during this process, helping to either mitigate these penalties or argue for the charges to be dropped completely.

Key Differences Between a Protection Order and a Criminal Charge

Although a protection order and criminal charges can be involved in the same case, these legal instruments carry several key distinctions. Protection orders are primarily preventive, designed to protect petitioners from harm by another person. Criminal charges, however, are punitive and involve the state prosecuting someone for alleged illegal behavior. 

The process and implications of each vary significantly, reflecting their different purposes within the legal system. Below are some of the key differences.

Legal Standards 

Civil protection orders operate under a preponderance of the evidence standard, meaning the court must believe it is more likely than not that the alleged behavior occurred. In contrast, criminal charges require proof beyond a reasonable doubt, a much higher standard to ensure fairness. Because criminal charges potentially deprive someone of their liberty, this distinction is necessary.

Purpose and Process

A protection order aims to prevent further harm by setting legal boundaries, whereas a criminal charge seeks to address a violation of law and impose penalties on the offender. Protection orders can be sought by individuals directly and are often resolved more quickly than criminal cases, which are prosecuted by the state and can take months or years to conclude.


The consequences of a criminal conviction are generally more severe and can include jail time, fines, and a criminal record. A protection order primarily restricts behavior; violating it can lead to criminal charges, but the order itself does not impose criminal penalties.

Evidence and Admissibility

The evidence that the petitioner will need to provide to obtain a protection order might not meet the stringent requirements for a criminal conviction. Conversely, behaviors leading to criminal charges might not qualify for a protection order based on the relationship between the parties or the nature of the incident. Both processes involve different requirements and require different levels of involvement on behalf of the petitioner.

Impact on Future Actions

While both can have significant impacts, criminal charges affect a person’s freedom and future opportunities more directly. The accused may face years in jail, need to pay significant fines, and grapple with the reality of a criminal record, which can affect their housing and employment options. Protection orders specifically limit interactions with the petitioner; although they may appear in different legal databases, these orders do not typically affect respondents in the same way.

A Washington Criminal Defense Attorney Can Protect Your Rights

If you find yourself accused of a crime or are the subject of a civil protection order in Washington, it is imperative to understand not only the differences between these legal issues but also your rights under the law. A criminal defense attorney can protect your rights during these proceedings, fighting for the best possible outcome. 

Whether you are defending against accusations or want to mitigate the potential penalties, a lawyer can be your advocate. Contact a Tacoma domestic violence attorney as soon as possible to discuss your case and explore your path forward.

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