Restraining Order Case

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(HOST) What rights do victims of domestic violence have when it comes to police protection? Commentator Cheryl Hanna discusses a current Supreme Court Case that could drastically change how the police respond to one of our community’s biggest problems.

(HANNA) Last year, more than 3,300 Vermonters received a relief from abuse order. Many women, in particular, rely upon these restraining orders to keep themselves safe from a violent husband or boyfriend. But what happens when the police won’t enforce an order?

On March 21st the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that will decide whether domestic violence victims have a constitutional right to have those orders enforced.

The case of Jessica Gonzalez v. Castle Rock Police Department is tragic. Just weeks after the Colorado woman got a restraining order against her husband, he abducted their three daughters from their front yard. Jessica reported the girls missing and asked that the restraining order be enforced. The police told her to call back later.

After eight calls and two visits to the police station, the police still did nothing. Then at 3 am, her husband arrived at the police station and began shooting with a gun he’d purchased after he abducted his daughters. He was killed in the shoot-out. The bodies of the three girls were found in his truck. He’d killed them much earlier in the evening.

Jessica sued the police, claiming that their failure to enforce her restraining order violated her Constitutional right to due process of the law. She argues that the restraining order gave her a legitimate expectation of protection and that her repeated pleas for help should not have been arbitrarily disregarded without notification that the order would not be enforced.

In contrast, the Police rely on a 1989 Supreme Court case DeShaney v. Winnebago County – another tragic set of facts. Here, four-year-old Joshua DeShaney was placed in the custody of Social Services. The department eventually returned Joshua to his father even though social workers documented that he continued to abuse his son. Joshua’s father then beat him so badly he fell into a coma, suffering severe brain damage. The court held the state had no constitutional duty to protect Joshua from his father.

By extension, the police argue, they have no duty to protect Jessica from her husband even if she has a restraining order. If Jessica prevails, the police fear an avalanche of lawsuits.

Would a constitutional right have saved Jessica’s children? Probably. In the past, fear of federal lawsuits prompted police to arrest domestic offenders instead of telling them to take a walk around the block. Arrest policies have saved the lives of many women. So, too, could clear policies about restraining order enforcement. But we wouldn’t need lawsuits if all police officers were trained in domestic violence and took it seriously. In Vermont, many officers are specially trained and have good working relationships with local advocates.

The more we can foster good relationships with law enforcement, the safer we all will be, because a relief from abuse orders is just piece of paper unless the police are willing to enforce it.

This is Cheryl Hanna.

Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton.

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