Courtroom lapses leave domestic violence victims at risk

Montgomery County courtroom lapses leave domestic violence victims at risk, group says
by Danielle E. Gaines


A Montgomery County woman broke out in hives and cried uncontrollably during a hearing to get a protective order from her husband this year after a District Court judge ordered the woman — who had a black eye at the time — to work out child support and visitation with her husband in a courthouse hallway, even though the husband was supposed to be under a “no contact” order from the court.

The woman’s husband had attacked her five times, requiring police intervention three times.

The incident was documented by Court Watch Montgomery, a new nonprofit that aims to improve the judicial process for abuse victims, in a report that documents serious lapses in the restraining order process in the Montgomery County District Courts and suggestions for improving the system.

Court Watch contends that lapses — such as failing to keep victims and abusers separate during judicial proceedings — leaves the victims of abuse unnecessarily at risk of violence.

The report is based on observations of 25 citizen-volunteers who monitored more than 640 restraining order hearings between mid-January and mid-July before all 11 Montgomery County District Court judges.

The report finds that:

— Judges allowed victims and abusers to leave the courthouse at the same time in 85 percent of cases, exposing victims to potential threats and violence after court. In one instance, an alleged abuser and his new girlfriend tried to hit a victim with their car outside the courthouse. The victim wanted to file criminal charges against her abuser after the incident, but her protective order was dated incorrectly, so it was invalid.

— 67 percent of the time, judges failed to tell abusers it is a crime to violate their protective order, even though telling them this can boost deterrence.

— In 68 percent of the hearings observed, judges did not tell abusers to surrender their firearms. State law requires the abuser to surrender all firearms to a law enforcement agency if a Final Protective Order is issued, but not for temporary orders. Abusers are not required to turn over other weapons disclosed in court — such as knives, swords, hatchets and other objects. The group would like to see the state law expanded to require more turnover of weapons from known abusers, said Laurie Duker, Court Watch’s executive director.

The group also says three of the 11 judges observed displayed inappropriate, intimidating or belittling behavior to the parties before them. The judges are not named.

More than 4,000 women in Montgomery County are victims of domestic violence every year and national estimates suggest that more than 76,000 Montgomery County women will be attacked by an intimate partner at some time in their lives, according to Court Watch.

In 2009 fiscal year, 4,171 domestic violence and peace order cases were filed in the county’s district courts, according to the Maryland Judiciary.

The report outlines some of the violence victims went to the court for protection from: an abuser who sprayed the wheelchair-bound victim with an outside hose in winter; a man who threatened to throw the couple’s baby in the ocean so that it would drown or over their home’s balcony; a man who threatened to “cut off my face” if his partner dated anyone else.

Since July 1, 2002, 48 people were killed by their partners or ex-partners in Montgomery County, according to the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, which supports the report.

In the past year, two Montgomery County residents are suspected of having been killed by their partners and the report is dedicated to them.

On Feb. 9, 2011, Elizabeth Velez Vasquez was chased by her husband into a back bedroom where he cut her 74 times and stabbed her five times. Bernardo Paz Flores-Olvera pleaded guilty to the crime and will be sentenced this week.

The second dedication is to Sue Ann Marcum of Bethesda who was found bludgeoned and strangled to death in her home on Oct. 25. Police suspect Jorge Rueda Landeros, of Juarez, Mexico, killed her.

The report includes 11 low-cost recommendations to make victims safer. Among them:

— Judges and bailiffs should always allow the victim time to leave the court before releasing the alleged abuser.

— A victim and abuser should never be left alone in waiting areas without a bailiff present to provide security.

— Judges should warn every respondent that violating a protective or peace order is a crime that can lead to time in jail.

— The courts should create a low-cost video in English and Spanish to clearly explain to all parties the complicated restraining order process. This could be played at the beginning of each docket and would save judges time.

Court Watch Montgomery’s next task will be to assess any increases in the use of best practices and possibly issue a follow-up report naming underperforming judges if no improvement is seen, Duker said.