How A “Dating Relationship” Can Elevate Misdemeanor Assault To A Felony
In Texas, assault is ordinarily a Class A misdemeanor. But prosecutors can bump the charge to a third-degree felony if the assault is an act of family violence (i.e., domestic violence). The felony charge requires prosecutors to establish two things beyond a reasonable doubt:
The defendant committed the assault in question against a member of their family or household, or someone with whom they currently or previously had a “dating relationship”; and The defendant had a prior criminal conviction for an act of family violence.
Dating RelationshipThe phrase “dating relationship” is fairly ambiguous on its face. After all, if you go on one date with a person and a fight breaks out, does that mean you have committed an act of family violence? In general, the answer is no. Texas law defines a dating relationship as one “between individuals who have or have had a continuing relationship of a romantic or intimate nature.” The word “continuing” is key. A court must look at a number of factors when assessing whether an alleged dating relationship exists or existed, including:
The length of the relationship;
The nature of the relationship; and
The frequency and type of interaction between the individuals involved in the relationship.
Proving a Dating Relationship ExistsA recent Texas appellate court decision, Coleman v. State, provides a useful illustration of how courts look at these factors in practice. In this case, the defendant was charged with third-degree felony assault as a second offender who committed family violence. A police officer witnessed the defendant slap and hit the victim. The victim subsequently told the officer that she had been fighting with the defendant and that he had been hitting her.
At trial, the defendant argued the prosecution could not prove he was in a “dating relationship” with the victim. The prosecution’s main evidence on this point was a recording of a phone call that the victim made to the defendant while he was in jail. During their conversation, the parties said things like “I love you” and called one another “baby” and “sweetie.” The defendant insisted that at best this proof of a “casual acquaintanceship or ordinary fraternization,” but not a dating relationship.
The jury disagreed and found the defendant guilty. The trial court sentenced the defendant to 25 years in prison. The Texas 14th District Court of Appeals later upheld the conviction and sentence. The appellate court said the jury was entitled to infer from the recorded conversation that the parties were in a dating relationship, even if they did not explicitly “refer to each other as girlfriend and boyfriend.” More to the point, the prosecution also presented evidence that the defendant had more than 300 conversations with the victim while he was in jail. Although the jury did not hear the contents of this conversation, again, the 14th District said the jury could infer from that detail that the parties had more than a casual friendship.