Friday, July 30, 2010

Report Clears Paterson, but Exposes NYPD Failures

A report released by the NY Attorney General’s office this Wednesday, July 28, clears Governor Paterson of criminal charges relating to his alleged role in attempting to cover up domestic violence claims against a former top aide. The report investigated whether Paterson and the New York State Police became improperly involved in an incident of domestic violence between Paterson’s long-term aide David W. Johnson and his then-girlfriend, Sherr-Una Booker. The report, by Judge Judith S. Kaye, former chief judge of the State Appellate Court and independent counsel to the New York office of the Attorney General, says that while Paterson made “errors of judgment,” he did not break any laws.

Even though Paterson is criminally vindicated in this case, the report does highlight some revealing failures on the part of the New York Police Department which have serious implications for victims of domestic violence. The domestic dispute between Johnson and Booker occurred on October 31st, 2009, and allegedly involved Johnson physically attacking Booker: choking her, throwing her against a dresser, and tearing off her clothes. The report states that evidence reveals “errors in the NYPD response to the incident.”

In fact, Booker made three phone calls to the NYPD to report a domestic violence incident and request assistance. Booker’s 911 call was categorized as a “dispute” and therefore a “low priority call.” The patrol car assigned to respond to Booker’s request for assistance first attended a car accident (waiting for the car to be towed before leaving the scene) and then to a landlord-tenant dispute before finally moving on to Booker’s residence. Shockingly, but not unusually, it took the NYPD a full hour and a half to arrive at her apartment.

When they DID arrive, the NYPD patrol officers did not adequately respond to Booker’s reports that she was strangled. The incident was classified as "harassment" because the officers did not see visible injuries on Booker’s body. “Harassment” is a violation that is prosecutable, but is not considered a crime under New York Law. Because the NYPD officers saw no visible injuries and did not witness the altercation between Johnson and Booker, the only recourse they offered Booker was to file for a civil order of protection in the Bronx Family Court – even though Booker was afraid that Johnson would return to her apartment that night to “finish the job.”

This report highlights just a few of the obstacles faced by victims of domestic violence when they report an incident of abuse - delayed police responses, which could have a critical impact on the safety of the victim, and the difficulty for a victim to get the police to arrest an abuser whose actions are classified as harassment, before any visible bruising or markings appear that support a victims claim of choking or other assault.

For state-by-state legal information, to read the actual laws in your state, and to find resources for women living with or escaping domestic violence or sexual assault, please visit

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Obama Signs New Tribal Law and Order Act into Law!

Great news! A new Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA) will be signed into law by President Obama today. The law, which revises the 1968 Indian Civil Rights Act, will clear up some obscurities in the relationship between federal and tribal laws, in order to combat the persistent problem of violence among Native Americans. It is a significant move forward in the effort to achieve justice for victims of violence on reservations, particularly women victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

In the most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report on American Indians and Crime, a comprehensive study spanning most of the 1990s, Native Americans were found to be the victims of violent crime at more than twice the national rate. The problem especially affects women: according to Amnesty International, over a third of Indian and Alaska Native women will be raped in their lifetime. Enacted in response to these significant concerns, President Obama called this new law an “important step to help the federal government better address the unique public safety challenges that confront tribal communities.” The president said that in some Native American communities, the violent crime rates are more than 10 times the national average, the LA Times reports.

In the recent past, federal laws regulating Native American life have been few and far between. Tribal law differs significantly from tribe to tribe among each of the 560+ federally recognized Nations. The TLOA, first introduced in 2009, is designed to improve cooperation between federal, local, and tribal law enforcement. The law clearly authorizes collaboration between tribal and other jurisdictions. This means that if tribal law enforcement is in hot pursuit of someone who leaves their territory, they will be able to effectively coordinate with local law enforcement. Additionally, the TLOA gives tribal governments access to important national criminal databases, and creates a new federal office, the Office of Indian Country Crime, to improve communication between federal and tribal governments. The Indian Health Service, the federal department charged with ensuring Native American Health, will also be required to put consistent sexual assault protocol into operation.

Significantly, the new law also authorizes tribal governments to assign prison terms of up to three years. Under the 1968 law, tribal courts could impose criminal sentences of up to one year, but they were not bound by the 6th Amendment, which ensures the right to legal counsel. Under the new TLOA, tribal governments will have the option to assign longer prison sentences, however if they wish to participate in the three-year provision, they must provide attorneys for their defendants.

Signing the new TLOA into law will improve the efficiency of tribal governments to catch and prosecute criminals, will give tribal courts the ability to impose stricter sentences, and will establish more comprehensive rules regarding the collection of data on crime – all of which will contribute tremendously to the fight against domestic violence and sexual assault in Native American communities.

Visit to learn more about tribal laws, for information on tribal protection orders and to access other online resources for domestic violence on tribal land.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

New Domestic Violence Laws Incorporate Use of GPS Technology

GPS tracking is gaining traction in multiple states as a tool with which to fight domestic violence.

On Tuesday, a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that police acted legally in using GPS technology to track a man accused of stalking a woman. Police placed a GPS device in the car of the suspect, which enabled them to collect the evidence necessary to arrest him. The suspect appealed, arguing that the GPS tracking violated his constitutional rights, but his appeal was overruled, giving state police the authority to use GPS technology in their efforts to combat stalking, and other crimes.

Another use of GPS technology is being initiated in Connecticut. Starting on October 1, a GPS monitoring system will be activated to track abusers who violate protective orders against them. The program, called First Alert, will notify victims of domestic violence when their abusers come within a certain distance. The Connecticut GPS program gained support this spring after several high-profile domestic violence homicides which could potentially have been avoided had victims known that their abusers were breaching the proscribed buffer-zone of protection. The program will be piloted for 6 months unless more funding can be secured. Those offenders who can afford it will be billed for the cost of the GPS monitoring equipment.

A new law in Kentucky has just gone into effect that requires some domestic violence offenders to wear a GPS transmitter around their ankle. The transmitters notify the police if an offender penetrates what is called an “exclusion zone” - an area established to keep offenders away from victims. Like in Connecticut, if ordered to wear a GPS transmitter by a judge, the offender will have to pay for the cost of the device – at a cost of approximately $12 per day.

If you’re an advocate interested in learning more about how new technologies can be used to protect victims of domestic violence, as well as how new technologies can become tools of abuse in the hands of offenders, check out Safety Net Project.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Tapes of Mel Gibson Prove Domestic Violence is Everywhere. But Are They Admissible in Court?

In a tape released Monday, actor Mel Gibson acknowledges an incident in which he hit former girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva twice while she held their baby daughter. In his verbally abusive tirade, Gibson not only admits to the incident, he tells Grigorieva that she deserved it. The legal admissibility of the tape is dubious, because in California, "both parties must consent to have a phone conversation recorded," according to the LA Times. But it may still be admissible in court, the Times adds, because some legal exceptions are made for victims of violence.

While it is important for victims of domestic violence to collect evidence against their abuser, each state has its own laws about what evidence you can use in court. And while aggressive, harassing phone calls are a form of domestic abuse, in most states it is considered a misdemeanor or felony to tape a phone conversation without the consent of the other party. In California, for instance, both parties must be aware that they are being taped, otherwise recording a conversation carries the same penalty as intercepting telephone or wire communications. So it has yet to be seen whether the tapes made by Grigorieva, however damning, will be admissible in court. And she may face penalties for making the tapes. (For state-by-state information on taping phone calls and conversations, go to:

And it is important to remember that there are other ways to build a strong domestic violence case in court. In most states, evidence can include:
• Testimony in court (from you or your witnesses)
• Medical reports of injuries from the abuse
• Police reports for when you or a witness called the police
• Pictures of your injuries (better if they are dated)
• Household objects torn or broken by the abuser
• Pictures of your household in disarray after an episode of domestic violence
• Weapons used
• Tapes of calls you may have made to 911
• Certified copies of the abuser’s criminal record (try to get these through the clerk of criminal court)
• A personal diary or calendar in which you documented the abuse as it happened
• Anything else that might help convince the judge.

The significance of this case for victims of domestic violence goes above and beyond the legal validity of the leaked tape, however. According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, "nearly 5.3 million incidents of domestic violence occur each year among U.S. women ages 18 and older." Most of those incidents lack the high profile luster of a Mel Gibson or a Chris Brown, but they have the same destructive impact on individual lives and families around the country. The leaked tapes of Gibson may or may not ultimately be the evidence used to convict Gibson, but they certainly have shed a spotlight on domestic violence - which can only strengthen the fight against it.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Woman in Extra-marital Affair Denied a Protection Order in New York

Last year, Jessica D. filed for a family court order of protection against a man with whom she was having an extra-marital affair. The man had become violent and had threatened to kill her, and she was concerned for her own safety, as well as the safety of her husband and child. The court acknowledged that Jessica D.’s relationship with this man met “the statutory standards of intimacy,” and she was granted a temporary ex parte order of protection on her first court date. However, at the next hearing, her petition was dismissed by the Family Court of Madison County on the grounds that it “violated public policy,” and she was encouraged to seek an order of protection in criminal court instead. Part of the court’s justification was that an order of protection was supposed to prevent family disruption – to help preserve the institution of marriage and “keep the family unit intact” – not sanction and protect someone having an extra-marital relationship. In other words, as a married woman, living with her husband and 6 year-old daughter, Jessica D.’s relationship with another man was socially unacceptable, and therefore the court refused to grant her legal protection.

The Law and Moral Judgment of the Court

At the heart of the issue is whether Family Court had the right to deny a petition made by a married woman against an individual with whom she was having a sexual relationship who was not her husband. Family Court has authority over certain crimes known as “family offenses” that take place between members of the same family or household, including people who are not married but have a child in common. And in 2008, this was expanded to include “intimate relationships” between people who were never married and never had a child in common, including same-sex and heterosexual dating partners. So when the Family Court of Madison County denied Jessica D.’s petition for an order of protection on the grounds of “public policy”, it was going against the letter and intention of the law.

Appealing the Ruling

Jessica D. appealed this ruling to the appellate court, and on June 24, 2010, she successfully had the ruling reversed! While the scope of the ruling is limited to the counties within that specific judicial district, this is a significant victory with important implications for victims of domestic violence in New York.
  • The ruling of the appeals court sets a precedent. Now, even in cases where a woman is living with her spouse/partner, she may receive an order of protection against an abuser with whom she has had an intimate relationship outside of this relationship.
  • Hopefully, this ruling will act as a deterrent to other courts that might have been inclined to similarly deny an order of protection based on the relationship between the victim and the abuser – and whether they considered it “socially acceptable” or not.

The Family Court of Madison County erroneously denied Jessica D.’s petition for an order of protection as a means of preserving the social unit of marriage, which it gave, in this case, more importance than the safety of the victim or her family. The reversal of this ruling is an important bolster to the legislation and its purpose: offering protection to victims of domestic violence, without placing judgment on the nature of relationship between victim and abuser.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

States Move Forwards on Making Strangulation a Crime

What do you mean? Strangulation isn’t already considered a crime?

So far only 29 states have passed legislation that classifies the act of strangulation as a specific crime and increases sentences for offenders who have non-fatally strangled a victim. This may soon be the case for Ohio and New York, 2 states that do not currently treat strangulation as a felony in and of itself, but rather place it in a general category of assault or domestic abuse.

Strangulation is used by abusers to assert control, power, and psychological terror over their victims. It can also easily lead to fatal results. Historically, one of the problems with prosecuting strangulation has been that in many cases there is no visible evidence of injury, and where physical evidence was lacking, strangulation was not treated as a serious offense. Yet 10% of violent deaths in the U.S. each year are due to strangulation, and the majority of victims are women.

Ohio lawmakers have recently moved to support legislation that makes strangulation a felony. Similarly, in New York, Democratic State Senator Eric Schneiderman has sponsored a bill entitled “The Strangulation Prevention Act 2010” which, when approved, will increase penalties for assaults that involve “impeding or impairing another person’s breathing or circulation.” This is great news: having a specific law against strangulation plays an important role in protecting victims of domestic violence.

Strangulation a warning sign for murder?

Research has demonstrated a link between assaults involving strangulation and fatal incidents of domestic violence. A 2008 study in the Journal of Emergency Medicine analyzed 300 murders in 11 U.S. cities and showed that 43% of women who had been murdered in domestic assaults and 45% of attempted murder victims had been strangled in the previous year by their male partners.

Victims of strangulation are at higher risk of being murdered by their partners in the future. Passing legislation that specifically designates strangulation as a crime is an important step towards decreasing the number of fatalities associated with domestic assault. But in addition to making legislative changes, states need to sensitize law enforcement officials to recognize the severity of strangulation and investigate and act accordingly, especially in light of the fact that so often there are no visible injuries.

Click here to read the “Strangulation Prevention Act 2010” in its entirety or here for more information on strangulation. Go to for state-specific legal information on domestic violence and sexual assault.