Va. bill would give abused daters better chance at restraining orders

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; B01

RICHMOND - When Dominique Lamb's boyfriend hit her during a fight in 2006, the college student made what she thought was the responsible decision: She broke up with him.

But Lamb's boyfriend didn't go away. Instead, he called her - repeatedly. He texted. When she unfriended him on Facebook, he found people who knew her and friended them instead.

Frightened, Lamb, who was 20 at the time, went to campus security at Washington and Lee University, where she was enrolled. They offered to distribute her ex-boyfriend's picture on campus.

That's in part because Virginia law makes it difficult for people who are dating, but not living together or married, to get protective orders against their partners. Under current law, family members and others who live together can seek a protective order reserved for cases of "family abuse," provided they can show that they've been subjected to violence or threats of violence.

But everyone else, including people who have dated, face a much higher standard. They can get a protective order only if there's been a criminal warrant issued for the alleged abuser for stalking, sexual battery or other offenses that could lead to serious injury.

Domestic violence activists say many people who are dating have little access to protective orders because their partner's behavior has not risen to a level that would justify criminal charges.

Others decide they prefer to skip a restraining order rather than pursue criminal charges that might anger their abuser and cause them to lash out.

"There just wasn't much that they could do," Lamb said of her own case. Although she had called the police, she had not wanted to press criminal charges against her ex-boyfriend. "It never occurred to anyone to advise me to go after a protective order."

The General Assembly is now considering a dramatic rewrite of the state's protective-order laws to make it easier for people who are dating to get court orders requiring their abusive partners to stay away.

The issue has taken on new resonance since the death of University of Virginia lacrosse player Yeardley Love last year.

Fellow student George Huguely V, 23, has been charged with murder in the case. Huguely and Love were in an on-again, off-again relationship, and at the time of her death, he told police that she'd recently broken up with him.

"I have no idea if this would have helped her - but it can clearly help people in other situations," said Sen. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax), who sponsored unsuccessful legislation on the issue last year and has returned this year with a bill modeled on recommendations of the Virginia Crime Commission.

Barker said Love's death has "focused attention" on the issue.

Researchers with the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance could find no other state that requires criminal charges to be filed before a restraining order is issued.

Under Barker's measure, which will be considered by a state senate committee Wednesday, Virginia would have two protective orders: one for family members and one for everyone else, including dating partners. The latter is known as a stalking order.

But the requirement that a warrant be issued for the arrest of the abuser to get a stalking order would be eliminated. And it would become a felony to violate a stalking order three times - just as it is now for repeatedly violating a family abuse order.

Although people who are dating would find it easier to get a protective order under Barker's bill, it does not specifically reference dating partners , one of his goals when he got involved with the issue last year.

But Lamb, now a graduate who lectures on college campuses and works with an organization that encourages awareness of domestic violence, believes it should.

The "dating" reference, she said, could help persuade young women, who studies have shown are increasingly subject to domestic violence, to take trouble in their relationships seriously.

"We have to convince them that what's happening is really violence and abuse," she said.

Barker said leaving the words out could build consensus with legislators who have worried about creating legal headaches if courts must determine whether two people are dating.

"You know, I've had one date with a person. Does that mean I'm in a dating relationship? Or does it mean you have to have had 10 dates?" Barker asked.

Similar legislation to Barker's is being sponsored in the House by Del. Robert B. Bell (R-Charlottesville). Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) and Del. David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) are also sponsoring bills that specifically reference dating violence.

The legislation's success this year may rest on whether conservatives in the House of Delegates decide the state can afford it, with state revenue still weak after the recession.

Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), who chairs the committee where the issue is assigned, has said his panel will not hear most bills that expand the state's criminal statutes and cost the state additional money. He said he could support the protective-order bill if the provisions making it a felony to violate a stalking order repeatedly is removed because of the costs of creating new felonies.

Advocates acknowledge that broadening restraining-order protections would have a fiscal impact because law enforcement would be serving more orders and enforcing more violations. But they urged the General Assembly to take up the issue this year.

"Every moment they wait to act on this, there are people who are at increased risk of homicide," said Gena Boyle, an advocate with the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance.

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