Domestic Violence Law- A Force To Be Reckoned With!

By: Donald P. Schweitzer

When a victim of domestic violence makes a call to the police, a number of things are likely to happen. The police will probably respond quickly and place the accused under arrest. An automatic protective order will be served and criminal charges are likely to be filed. The victim will be invited to move to a domestic violence shelter and can obtain immediate orders from the family court, awarding him or her full custody of the children and temporary child and spousal support. And, if a victim requests exclusive use of the home, his or her request will probably be granted.

Unfortunately, victims of domestic violence are often unaware of these and many other rights because it was not that long ago when our legal system's attitude and method of dealing with domestic violence was radically different.

IN THE OLD DAYS

Those of us who were working within the criminal justice system during the early 1980's remember how it used to be before domestic violence was taken seriously. The policy of police departments throughout the United States was to treat domestic violence as a matter that should not involve the courts. When responding to domestic disturbances, police officers were trained to simply "keep the peace." Standard policy for police officers responding to these calls was to first break up the fight and then to tell one of the parties (usually the man), to leave the house for the evening so that things could cool off. Police officers were specifically trained that they should not make arrests in these types of cases, since they were "civil matters."

Obviously, the policy and practice of not making arrests was flawed. Victims of domestic violence were afforded almost no protection and many people were seriously hurt as a result.

THE BURNING BED

Fortunately, things began to change during the mid 1980's as a result of a couple of cases that caught national attention. Movies such as the "Burning Bed," starring Farrah Fawcett, woke up Americans to the problem of domestic violence and challenged our cultural beliefs about these cases. Domestic violence was no longer that dirty little secret families had to keep. Suddenly, it was recognized in mainstream America that victims of domestic violence deserved protection. Consequently, law enforcement's method of dealing with domestic violence also changed.

Police departments throughout the nation implemented policies requiring officers to hand out pamphlets to victims of domestic violence that explained their rights to move to a shelter and to press charges. Also, when victims of domestic violence incidents told the officers that they wanted to press charges, officers would take their complaints seriously and would usually place the perpetrator under arrest. Victims of domestic violence were finally listened to when they desired prosecution. This shift in policy created more work for police departments and the courts, but was generally welcomed by professionals who cared about protecting victims of domestic violence.

O.J. SIMPSON AND POLITICS

Law enforcement's handling of domestic violence continued to change during the late 1980's and the early 1990's. During this period, prosecutors and legislators began taking a hard core approach to dealing with domestic violence cases. The influx of women prosecutors and, of course, the O.J. Simpson case were major reasons for this change. Special units that dealt exclusively with domestic violence were created by the District Attorney's Office, and it became a feather in one's cap to be assigned to these units.

As a result of these changes, the police department's treatment of domestic violence cases changed radically. Out of concern for liability and for political considerations, police departments incorporated no-nonsense policies of dealing with domestic disturbances. These no-nonsense policies included:

1) Where there is a complaining party and slight corroborative evidence, somebody is going to jail; and

2) The person going to jail is usually booked on a felony, so that bail can be increased, making it difficult for the person arrested to get out.

The District Attorney's Office's handling of these cases also began to look quite different than anything we had ever seen before. Equipped with the passage of new penal code sections that made it easier to obtain convictions and which created harsh sentencing for these offenses, prosecutors became much more aggressive when filing charges. More dramatically, however, was the new tactic prosecutors used when dealing with cases where there is a recanting or uncooperative victim. Instead of automatically dismissing these cases, the prosecution would usually proceed to trial using the victim's spontaneous statements as evidence.

Our legal system's changed attitude toward domestic violence was also reflected in the passage of numerous state and federal laws. For example, we now have laws that provide victims of domestic violence with "victim rights advocates" who accompany victims during criminal proceedings and provide moral support.

In fact, the plain language of these new statutes displays our government's changed view of domestic violence. Take for example, California Penal Code, Section 243, which boldly declares:

"The Legislature finds and declares that these specified crimes merit special consideration when imposing a sentence so as to display society's condemnation for these crimes of violence upon victims with whom a close relationship has been formed."

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER

Without a doubt, victims of domestic violence now receive better protection from our legal system than what is afforded to victims of most other crimes. Consequently, understanding the protections provided by our legal system is an essential first step to getting out of an abusive relationship.

On the other hand, if you or someone you know has been accused of domestic violence you had better seek legal advice immediately, because you are facing a force to be reckoned with!

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