Support for abuse victim aid bill strong

Court commissioners would wield broader protection powers

February 14, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Victims of domestic violence could seek legal protection from their abusers at night and on weekends - not just during 9-to-5 weekday courtroom hours - under legislation that appears likely to win approval from the General Assembly.

"Domestic violence is not limited to business hours," said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend during a hearing on the proposal yesterday. "We should be there for victims of domestic violence 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

The proposal being considered by lawmakers would expand the powers of District Court commissioners when courts aren't open, letting them issue interim orders forbidding those accused of abuse from contact with those seeking protection.

The orders would be reviewed by district or circuit judges within two days of the court being back in session.

"As a commissioner, it really hurts to send these people away when they are asking plainly for some level of protection we can't provide," said Michael Elmore, a court commissioner in Charles County who oversees Southern Maryland commissioners.

If approved by the Assembly, the proposal would need approval by voters this fall because it would amend the state constitution.

Similar legislation failed in the House Judiciary Committee last year. This year, the proposal is sponsored by the House of Delegates leadership - including the chairman of that committee.

The proposal also is backed by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, the state attorney general, state and local police agencies, the judiciary and domestic violence activists. Chief Judge Robert M. Bell of the Maryland Court of Appeals highlighted the issue during his annual State of the Judiciary speech last month.

In hearings before Senate and House committees yesterday, lawmakers were urged to give domestic violence victims the opportunity to obtain protection at all times. "It closes the loophole in making sure that we all have continuous access to the judicial process when we need it," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat.

Under current law, victims of domestic violence can obtain civil protection orders from judges only during weekday business hours.

But about 44 percent of domestic violence occurs between 7 p.m. and 1 a.m., and about a third occurs on weekends, according state crime statistics and to data from the House of Ruth, a Baltimore shelter for battered women .

If victims want protection at night or on weekends, they must swear out criminal complaints and have the alleged abuser arrested - something many spouses are reluctant to do. And even if there is an arrest, there is no enforceable protection order should the suspect be released on bail.

Elizabeth Tuck, a 20-year state employee who lives in Baltimore County, testified yesterday that she learned how few options exist when an ex-boyfriend started threatening her on a weekend in April 2000. She had to wait until Monday for a protection order.

Tuck stayed with a friend, then went to District Court on Monday. "I was lucky I lived through this terrible experience," she said.

District Court commissioners can charge people with crimes, issue arrest warrants and conduct bail hearings. They must be college graduates - but not lawyers - and are appointed by District Court administrative judges. "They do very important work already in the judicial system," said Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.

Another domestic violence-related proposal appears much less likely to pass. A bill from Del. Ann Marie Doory, a Baltimore Democrat, would permit judges who issue protective orders to demand that alleged abusers surrender their firearms.

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