Number of requests for restraining orders explodes in Virginia

February 4, 2012

When a former co-worker crept into her home and said, “I’ve just come to kill you,” a Herndon woman got one. When a man was chewed out by an opposing attorney in a Fairfax County civil case, he tried to get one. And when a landlord and a tenant had a heated argument over rent in Alexandria, the renter got one, too.

The number of requests for restraining orders in Virginia has exploded in the past six months, and a review by The Washington Post of more than 50 applications found that neighbors, co-workers, friends and even strangers are using a new law that makes them much easier to get.

Advocates for victims of domestic violence said the state’s novel approach is a major step forward, but others are worried that the law is so broad that courts are being strained by the requests and that some are seemingly frivolous or calculated to gain leverage in pending litigation, such as child-custody suits.

“It’s had a big impact,” said Donald P. McDonough, chief judge of Fairfax County General District Court. “We’re receiving many valid requests. In all candor, we are also seeing some unusual cases as well.”

The spur for the change was the high-profile death in 2010 of University of Virginia student Yeardley Love, whose ex-boyfriend, George Huguely, goes on trial this week on murder charges in the killing. The case touched off a national debate on how Virginia handled restraining orders, or protective orders as they are known in the state.

Domestic-violence groups said that it would have been difficult for Love to get a protective order against Huguely under ­Virginia’s old law, which they deemed one of the least progressive in the nation.

Unlike the vast majority of states, Virginia did not have a provision that allowed those in dating relationships to get a protective order. Requests could be made by family or household members and victims in cases in which an arrest warrant had been issued for stalking, sexual battery or assault.

Law broadened

In reworking the law, Virginia legislators went beyond adding a dating provision — and further than most states. They focused on the abusive or threatening behavior as the criteria, rather than the relationship between the parties. That has allowed virtually anyone alleging abuse or threats of violence to apply for a protective order. And that’s precisely what has happened.

“It’s sort of opened the floodgates,” said General District Court Clerk Nancy L. Lake.

The state’s General District Courts were designated to handle these non-family restraining orders. Fairfax processed three times more requests for restraining orders in 2011 as compared with 2010, officials said. The court dedicated a clerk to process the paperwork. And the new law only went into effect in July.

Statewide, the number of restraining orders the courts granted jumped 17 percent in 2011 compared with 2010, according to the Virginia State Police. About 70,000 orders were granted last year. Police were not able to calculate how much of the increase was the result of the new law but said it probably played a large role.

Gena M. Boyle, domestic-violence advocacy coordinator for the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, said the law has been a lifeline for those in abusive relationships. “We have 57 local programs across the state. They say the new restraining orders are assisting dating-violence victims quite a bit,” Boyle said.

That includes cases that have echoes of the type of tragedy authorities allege took Love’s life. A family in Fairfax was granted a protective order against the daughter’s 19-year-old ex-boyfriend after they claimed he hit her and sent a death threat via text message, according to court filings.

“All i ever do is is love u and u goin blame me fore this,” the message read. “i swear ill kill u if i see u.”

In another case, a Fairfax man was granted a protective order against an ex-girlfriend after she allegedly threatened to hurt him and his mother, according to court filings. The man also said she made a fake Facebook page on which she claimed that he raped her friends.

Other requests

While dating violence was the spark for the change, it comprises only a portion of the cases. Neighbor, roommate, workplace and landlord-tenant disputes also make up a large chunk. A fraction of these appear frivolous or maliciously motivated.

In Richmond, court clerks said a neighbor attempted to file a protective order against another neighbor who had put a dead fish on her doorstep.

Other clerks said some landlords appear to be filing protective orders in attempts to get rid of tenants.

Prominent Fairfax lawyer and former prosecutor Rodney G. Leffler recently found himself a target of the new law. A Fairfax man attempted to get a protective order against the lawyer after the man claimed that they had a run-in over a civil case at Leffler’s office in October, according to court records.

The man, who did not return a call for comment, claimed that Leffler said he was going to throw him out of his office and yelled, “I never want to see you again!” The court did not grant the protective order, and Leffler, who said he was unaware of the request until The Post contacted him, was dismayed.

He called it an abuse of the system.

“To me, what’s interesting, like so many things, we’ve overreacted and now anyone can come in there and apply for a [protective order],” Leffler said.

Del. Robert B. Bell (R-Charlottesville), who sponsored the law, said there is no evidence frivolous filings make up any sizable portion of requests. He said he thought courts would be able to handle the new cases.

“It’s too soon to tell if this law will do what we will want it to do, but we are certainly encouraged by what we’ve seen so far,” Bell said.

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