Abuse bill to go to voters

Measure to offer protective orders on weekends, at night

Legislature gives OK

Constitutional change would be required

item on Nov. ballot

March 30, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

If voters agree in November, domestic violence victims will be able to receive immediate protection from their abusers even when courtrooms are closed.

The General Assembly gave final approval yesterday to a bill that would allow court commissioners to grant temporary protective orders on weekends and after regular court hours - the times when most men and women are at home and so most domestic violence occurs, according to state crime statistics. A judge would then review the order when court reopened.

Because the measure would entail a change to the Maryland Constitution, it must appear on the ballot in November and be approved by voters to become law.

Now only a judge can issue a protective order. Since judges work weekdays during normal business hours, a person who fears being harmed on a Friday night, for instance, must wait until Monday to request a civil order barring an abuser from coming near a potential victim.

"This is a great victory, certainly for victims of domestic violence, as it gives them arguably instant access to some relief," said Carole Alexander, executive director of House of Ruth, a Baltimore shelter for battered women. "This enables women to get him out of there in a legal way."

Although protective orders are only as good as their enforcement, they are a vital tool for victims, said Videtta A. Brown, chief domestic violence prosecutor for the Baltimore state's attorney's office. "Out of thousands of cases that we do every year, I would say 10 percent to 15 percent are violations of protective orders. It's just an extra measure of protection," she said, adding that the orders can strengthen a criminal case.

A person can file criminal charges at any time with police, but many spouses don't want to take such a drastic step. In addition, the abuser might be released from police custody after court hours, potentially exposing a victim to further harm.

There is no official count of victims who have been harmed or killed while waiting to get a protective order, though there is plenty of anecdotal evidence. "It only needs to happen one time, and the tragedy is so obvious, it doesn't even need comment," said Judge James N. Vaughan, chief of the District Court system.

Court commissioners are on duty 24 hours a day. Vaughan said plans to educate commissioners about protective orders are already under way, since the law would go into effect shortly after voter approval in November.

The legislation failed in the General Assembly last year. This year, it was a priority of House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, also championed the measure in his State of the Judiciary address in January.

Anne Arundel District Judge Martha F. Rasin, the District Court system's former chief judge, has pushed for the legislation for two years. She said her own job has underscored the need for a change, and at 4 p.m. yesterday, she was preparing to hold hearings on protective order applications from people eager to get them in place before the court closed at 4:30.

Rasin said she didn't want to be overly confident about the referendum, but said: "I think the voters are concerned about victims. ... Our hope is by the time this issue gets on the ballot that people will understand it already."

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