Credible threats: A domestic violence dilemma
It was the outcome every woman who files for a domestic violence restraining order fears. The court denied the request, and the woman allegedly wound up a victim. What, if anything, can be done to make such a horrible outcome less likely?
If you are not familiar with the story, police say Stanislav Osherov, 22, of Newton, Mass., kidnapped and sexually assaulted his ex-girlfriend last Monday. Only three days earlier, the woman had filled out a petition for a domestic violence restraining order. The judge denied the petition.
Extreme cases make bad law, as the old legal saying goes, so before legislators leap to rewrite our laws based on this one terrible case, it is worth considering the facts.
Domestic violence restraining orders are granted based on alleged abuse. Abuse is defined as one of seven different acts, from assault and criminal threatening to harassment. In this case, the woman alleged that Osherov had called her hundreds of times over a few days, sent her numerous email and Facebook messages, and came unwanted to her home.
It would appear that this behavior would count as harassment. Under state law, one of the legal definitions of harassment is that a person "makes a telephone call, whether or not a conversation ensues, with no legitimate communicative purpose or without disclosing his or her identity and with a purpose to annoy, abuse, threaten, or alarm another."
The law allows for a protective order if the petitioner shows "an immediate and present danger of abuse."
In this case, the judge decided that the petitioner had not shown that immediate and present danger. Court personnel offered the woman a stalking petition to fill out, but she declined.
The New Hampshire Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence has long advocated that New Hampshire add emotional abuse to the list of abuses that would trigger a domestic violence restraining order. Legislators should look into that. But we should not kid ourselves that there is an easy legal solution for those difficult cases in which someone is in real danger but cannot prove an immediate threat.
We would like to see more police involvement in cases like these. If someone is afraid enough to come to the court for protection, the police should check in with that person the next day even if no order was granted. A phone call or a stop by the house could yield more evidence or deter a would-be abuser. In the meantime, legislators need to take a serious look at how the petition process can be made easier to understand. We can improve this process without weakening the standards to the point that restraining orders can be issued when there is no credible threat.