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A fair standard for protective orders in Maryland

By Luiz R.S. Simmons
Rockville
Sunday, March 21, 2010; C05

The Post's campaign to denigrate the reasonable standards required by Maryland law to obtain a protective order in cases of alleged domestic abuse ["In Maryland, protection denied," "Remember them in November" editorials, March 4 and 7] has been unfettered by fact or fairness. The Maryland House Judiciary Committee rejected, by a lopsided 15 to 6 vote, the latest attempt to deny citizens due process in these summary proceedings for the following reasons:

-- A protective order hearing is not initiated by an impartial police officer or prosecutor. Instead, any person can trigger a hearing by alleging abuse. Many people have a case for abuse. Many others may have an ax to grind, such as gaining an advantage in a divorce proceeding. The court must try to distinguish between the two.

-- Under Maryland law, "abuse" is an elastic term that includes everything from alleged verbal threats to a push to an egregious physical assault.

-- Any of these allegations are immediately taken up in a summary proceeding without most of the safeguards of a formal trial. Often the allegations are not independently corroborated. Both parties are often unrepresented. In the bat of an eye, either person can be ejected from his or her home, or denied contact or visitation with his or her children.

-- A recent study from the Administrative Office of the Courts shows that a mere 7 percent of all requests for protective orders are denied because of a failure to meet the current standard that requires clear evidence. The Post belittles this fact but offers nothing to suggest that the orders should have been granted but for the current standard of evidence.

A case in point is the horrific case of Amy Castillo. Zealots of both the right and left use a common tactic. They do not rely on scrupulous empirical evidence. Instead, they revel in extreme anecdotes. In this distorted world, if one person is released on parole and commits a crime, no one should be paroled. This Willie Hortonization of the truth forms the basis for Eileen King's personal attack on me for asking questions about the tragic Castillo case and trying to determine whether it tells us anything about changing Maryland law.

Here are the facts. The Montgomery County circuit judge who heard the Castillo case is a tough, no-nonsense former prosecutor. He is known for giving fair trials and long sentences. After taking 83 pages of uncorroborated testimony, he pointedly concluded that he found "substantial credibility issues" with both Mark and Amy Castillo. He denied the protective order request at that time because Amy Castillo's allegations did not meet any standard of evidence. It would have been denied even under the lower standard urged by King. Apparently, it is heresy to point out such things.

Fourteen months after the protective order was denied, in a monstrous act, Mark Castillo murdered his children. I have never questioned the integrity of either the judge or Amy Castillo. I obtained a transcript of the proceeding one year ago because I was appalled by what happened to Amy Castillo and her children and was ready to change my views if a lower standard would have changed the outcome. It would not have.

The record maintained by the General Assembly is clear. During the Feb. 25 House Judiciary Committee hearing in Annapolis, I did not ask Amy Castillo any questions, and I did not comment on any evidence in the court record. It is King and The Post who have publicly noted her ongoing sexual relations with her husband at the time she was seeking the protective order. I attach no significance to it.

The zealots on the right and left are dedicated to bringing down the curtain on fair and rigorous thinking in Annapolis. We should not allow them to turn each honest question asked by a legislator into an indictment of the person who asked it.

The writer, a Democrat, is a member of the Maryland House of Delegates.

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