Under a cloud

Lawmakers debate bill to clear records of those falsely accused of domestic abuse

General Assembly 2009

March 13, 2009|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

Even victims advocates acknowledged, by the end of a Senate hearing yesterday, that people falsely accused of domestic violence should be able to erase their public court records.

"Everyone's agreeing this is a problem," said Lisae C. Jordan of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

The question is what to do about it, they said. Senators took up the contentious issue of how to expunge the records of protective orders that are denied for lack of evidence or because the accuser fails to come to court. The House of Delegates resurrected the legislation, which it had killed a day earlier, and a committee is working on amendments.

Several senators on the Judicial Proceedings Committee said they were hesitant to pass any legislation without studying the matter in greater depth after the session ends next month. Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, an Anne Arundel County Republican, suggested posing it to the Governor's Family Violence Council, of which he is a member.

Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat and sponsor of the House version of the proposal, said he was "not stunned that we would kick the can down the road." But he predicted that the issue would not go away. As an attorney, he said, he has seen people denied jobs and housing after being falsely accused of abuse. "The number being tarred and feathered is growing every year," he said.

More than 17,000 temporary protective orders were generated last year. Judges or commissioners can grant the seven-day orders, considered emergency civil procedures, without hearing from the accused. About 8,000 of those never became final orders, which can last a year and are granted only after a judge has heard from the petitioner and the respondent.

However, even if a judge denies or dismisses the final order, the footprints of the temporary order remain in the public record, where employers and landlords can find them on the Internet.

Proponents of the expungement bill, including Sen. Norman Stone, a Baltimore County Democrat, say that keeping those records out of public view is a matter of fairness. The expunged records would remain available to police and judges, but not to prosecutors, victims advocates and the public.

"It's not a question of being sensitive to domestic violence," said Simmons, noting he has supported many measures to strengthen abuse laws. "It's about the elementary notions of fairness and due process."

Wallace Kleid, a Baltimore-area attorney, said his ex-wife took out a temporary protective order against him as a weapon in a bitter divorce proceeding. She later admitted under oath, he said, that there was no factual basis for the order.

"I am a victim," Kleid told the senators. "Why should it be so hard to remove the stigma wrongly placed on me?"

Women's groups and domestic violence experts say there are many reasons that victims don't pursue protective orders. They argue having a public record of those orders - even if not made final - can show important patterns.

"The value is the cycle of violence," said Laure Ruth of the Women's Law Center. She said she represented a woman who obtained four temporary orders before following through to receive a final order. Ruth said the woman was financially dependent upon her husband and was afraid of being left homeless.

Some victims advocates and state lawmakers said the expungement issue seems at odds with other domestic measures working their way through the General Assembly. Yesterday morning, the House of Delegates signed off on two proposals to confiscate guns from the subjects of protective orders after hours of failed Republican attempts to alter the plan.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, has been pushing for the measures. One would enable judges to take guns when temporary orders are issued, and the other would require judges to do so in the case of final orders.

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