Maryland House Narrowly Defeats Bill to Allow Expunging of Dismissed Requests for Protective Orders

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Maryland House of Delegates yesterday narrowly defeated a measure that would have allowed for the expunging of requests for domestic protective orders that were dismissed, as domestic violence emerged as one of the legislative session's central issues.

The House defeated the measure 69 to 64 after an hour of emotional deliberation that had delegates on both sides of the issue talking about personal experiences with domestic violence.

Supporters of the measure argued that abuse accusations carry such a stigma that allowing records to remain public in cases that have been deemed unfounded unfairly hurts innocent people as they seek employment or housing.

Opponents contended that requests for protective orders are often dismissed because battered victims, usually women, are too scared or intimidated to pursue the matter. They said records are not expunged in other kinds of civil cases, even when allegations are unproved.

Del. Cheryl D. Glenn (D-Baltimore) told fellow delegates that she spoke as a victim when she pleaded with them to oppose the measure. She said later that she was abused for four years by her husband during the 1970s. Glenn said he threatened to kill her three children if she left and beat her before accidentally shooting and killing himself.

Not long afterward, Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. (R-Cecil) rose to quietly recall how he had watched his mother be abused when he was 10. But Smigiel said he supported the measure to avoid lumping innocent people together with those who have committed violence.

The debate previewed what is likely to be a difficult conversation in the House over domestic violence scheduled for later this week.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has put two bills that would take guns from abuse suspects at the center of his legislative agenda this year, and the measures are up for debate Thursday. That same day, delegates are scheduled to take up a proposal that would make it easier for victims of domestic abuse to obtain handgun permits.

Yesterday's action concerned records related to protective orders, a civil matter. Maryland judges can grant temporary orders, barring the accused from having contact with the petitioner, after hearing only from the petitioner. To grant a final protective order, the judge has to conduct a hearing at which the accused has a chance to respond, and the petitioner has to show "clear and convincing evidence" of abuse, one of the highest standards in the country.

About 9,400 of the 17,000 temporary orders issued last year led to final orders. Supporters of the bill said records in cases that were dismissed would remain available to law enforcement officials and judges but would be withheld from public view.

"The question before the House is: Innocent until proven guilty -- do we believe in it?" said the bill's sponsor, Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Montgomery). "There are tens of thousands of Maryland citizens who have not been found guilty of anything. . . . Yet we're treating those people exactly the same way as we treat people who have been found guilty of abuse. Does that make any sense to anyone?"

But many temporary orders are dismissed because victims do not return to court to seek a final order. Victims' advocates say dismissals occur in other cases because law enforcement officers fail to serve temporary orders within 30 days, as required by law.

"This is a bill that, in the end, fundamentally protects abusers," said Del. Doyle L. Niemann (D-Prince George's), who works as an assistant state's attorney. Niemann said many women suffer from battered women's syndrome and fail to pursue court action in domestic cases. He mentioned popular singer Rihanna, who is widely reported to have returned to her boyfriend, singer Chris Brown, after he allegedly beat her.

The House's women's caucus held an emergency meeting Monday to discuss the measure but could not agree on a position.

A companion measure is under consideration in the state Senate.

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