These days, mornings don't seem quite so desperate at the Howard County Courthouse's counseling office for domestic violence victims.
Victims advocate Anisa Vilaused to see bruised women, a few of them still bleeding, rushing in to seek protective orders against their abusers as soon as the courthouse opened each morning. But because of a new Maryland law, battered spouses and other people who feel threatened can request protective orders when the courts are closed.
"People no longer have to wait," Vila said. "Twelve hours that you have to wait to go file, that's an eternity if you're in a house with a person who's threatening."
Since the law took effect Dec. 18, dozens of people have sought interim, or after-hours, protective orders. In Howard, 19 were obtained in the past two months; in Calvert County, 30. In larger jurisdictions such as Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Montgomery counties, authorities have issued at least one a day.
Law enforcement officers have long known that nights, weekends and holidays -- when couples are together and courts are closed -- are the busiest times for emergency calls.
Still, Deputy Chief Darren M. Popkinof the Montgomery County sheriff's office said he's surprised the new law has been used so often so quickly.
"Those are pretty good numbers, considering that a lot of people may not be aware of [it]," Popkin said.
Before, only judges were allowed to sign protective orders. A referendum in November changed Maryland's constitution to give the authority to district court commissioners, the only court officers who work round-the-clock. They are responsible, when courts are closed, for issuing warrants to police and setting bail for criminal suspects.
An interim protective order remains in effect until a judge reviews the case the next time court is in session. While such orders do not guarantee that a victim will avoid another attack, they do usually deter the offending party from further abusive conduct.
Previously, the only protection for victims after hours was to ask for criminal charges against those they claimed were abusing them. Counselors said abuse victims often are reluctant to press criminal charges and see their spouses or partners taken to jail -- they just want the person out of the home and any weapons taken away.
Until the changes, Maryland was the only mid-Atlantic state that did not offer after-hours access to protective orders. More than 20 states, including Virginia, make the service available. The District issues orders only when courts are open.
The November ballot initiative had the backing of then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D), Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. (D) and Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell.
Maryland law enforcement officials said they could not recall any specific cases in which someone was fatally assaulted because he or she had to wait an evening or holiday weekend for court access.
However, Vila said, the court hours have frustrated people who have already been traumatized. Vila recalled that in October, a woman showed up at the Howard County Courthouse -- after her husband had beaten her the previous afternoon in front of their teenage son -- to find out that it was closed for the Columbus Day holiday. She could not go home. After police had charged her husband with attacking her, he was released from custody.
The woman had to find a friend to stay with that night, before coming back to the courthouse the next morning and receiving a protective order.
"Fortunately, she did come back," Vila said. "Some people may not have."
The number of protective orders issued during court hours has remained steady, law enforcement officials said. With the added number now being issued at night, some local jurisdictions may have to ask for more money from the state to serve -- or personally deliver -- the increasing number of orders, Anne Arundel County Sheriff George F. Johnson IV said.
"Any time you have additional amounts of paperwork to be served with the same amount of people, it's a little bit of a burden," Johnson said.
But, he added, the strain is a small price to pay to prevent what could happen if someone were unable to get a protective order. "We were always worried," he said. "This certainly relieves the anxiety on everybody's part."