The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Tuesday heard testimony from supporters of a bill that is intended to broaden the scope of a protective order so that domestic violence victims can be better protected.
But a representative of the state’s Office of the Public Defender who testified against the bill said the document’s language was too vague and too broad.
Sen. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, who filed SB 490 said his effort was a response to some incidents in Washington County, including the shooting death of Heather Harris, a Hagerstown resident in June 2011.
Her ex-boyfriend, Randy McPeak, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the incident and was sentenced to life in prison last year.
Under current laws, Harris was not eligible for a protective order from the court.
She had obtained a peace order, which affords lesser protections.
Shank’s bill, if it becomes law, would protect those in or formerly in intimate relationships who are currently not protected by a protective order and includes consensual relationships and non-consensual relationships, such as a sexual assault victim.
“The vast majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim,” said Lisae Jordan, executive director and counsel for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, who testified at the hearing.
By including both consensual and non-consensual relationships, the bill recognizes that all sexual assault victims should have access to protective orders, Jordan said in an email.
A protective order currently is mostly applicable to married couples, those who are living together or have a child together.
Detective Michael Broas, who works in the domestic violence unit of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, said at the hearing that expanding the scope of the protective order would put more domestic violence victims on the “radar” of law enforcement officers. If the bill passes, it would enable officers to “do our jobs better and hopefully we do not miss anyone who needs those reliefs,” Broas said at the hearing.
Christine B. Dufour, assistant public defender for the state’s Office of the Public Defender, testified against the bill.
“The law as currently written provides adequate relief as well as other sections of the criminal code,” Dufour said later. “The language of the bill is extremely broad and extremely subjective.”
The issue, she said at the hearing, is what the definition of “intimate” is. It could be a one-night stand or several dates, she said.
“The collateral consequence of a protective order as opposed to a peace order are grave, and I think we have to take that into account when we are going to have a whole new class (of those affected by protective orders),” Dufour said.
Shank said at the hearing that 32 other states currently have laws similar to the one proposed in his bill.
A protective order affords more protection than a peace order, in part, because law enforcement make additional checks and conduct a “lethality assessment,” Shank said.
Those testifying in support of the bill Tuesday included representatives of the House of Ruth, Maryland, a domestic violence center, and the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
Laure Ruth, legal director of the Women’s Law Center of Maryland, testified that it made sense to move relationship and dating violence cases from the peace order category to the protective order category.
“We certainly think that the bill allows judges to do their jobs, to do the fact finding, to determine whether the relationship was a dating relationship or not,” Ruth said at the hearing. “So, we think this makes complete logical sense to address these cases like the protective order cases and leave the peace orders for more of that neighbor dispute kind of thing.”
A version of the bill introduced by Shank during the 2012 session of the General Assembly was unsuccessful.