Friday, March 7, 2014
The time period immediately following a domestic violence assault is crucial. It is when victims are most vulnerable. They are trying to come to grips with the fact that a loved one has hurt them, and they are considering life without that person. That usually means a severe disruption in how they live – where they sleep, where their kids stay, how they pay their bills.
A loophole in Maine law currently allows people accused of domestic violence to contact their victims from jail while awaiting their bail hearings, which is legal since a judge hasn’t issued a no-contact order or set any other bail conditions.
The last thing they need at that time is a call from their alleged abuser.
Now, following an arrest, people facing charges of domestic violence cannot contact their victims and ask them to hold back testimony or testify falsely. But before a judge puts bail conditions in place, those accused can, as Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney notes, call and simply say, “I just want you to know I’m thinking of you.”
That can be enough to sway or scare a victim struggling with how to react to a situation fraught with complex, conflicting feelings.
“For a victim who has been strangled and beaten, the words have a large and frightening impact,” Maloney said.
This scenario became more likely following a law change last year that requires judicial review of bail conditions for the most serious of domestic violence cases.
That new law was put in place so the court understands the full scope of the case before setting bail and places the appropriate bail conditions – including limitations on contacting victims – for accused offenders.
But that means that following arrest, some people accused of abuse will wait up to two days to see a judge, during which time it’s legal for them to contact victims. Laws are in place that punish people who attempt to coerce someone they’re accused of abusing, but nothing keeps them from calling their victim to say hello, with all that implies.
The Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee is now reviewing L.D. 1656, from state Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono. The bill would close that gap, making it a crime for accused abusers to contact victims in any way while being detained before bail is set.
“We’ve identified this clear, fixable loophole,” Cain said this week. “It’s about making this protection constant.”
There are concerns that the bill would put undue restrictions on people who have yet to be found guilty of a crime. But as long as the law applies only to the most serious domestic violence cases, the state’s duty to protect victims should outweigh those concerns.
Every year in Maine, there are around 5,500 reported cases of domestic violence assault. Every year, half of the murders committed in this state are the result of domestic violence.
Closing this loophole is a small but important part of keeping victims safe, and helping bring those numbers down.