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Let's track would-be abusers

March 01, 2009

Not all offenses to society are created equally. Studies have shown that operating a motor vehicle while talking on a cell phone is just as dangerous as driving while drunk.

Who hasn't had a car drift into their lane, only to notice that the driver had a cell phone pinned to his ear? Who hasn't remained stopped at a green light because the driver in the car in front was too busy chatting to notice that the signal had changed?

Yet legislatures have been slow to act, seeing as how drunken driving is generally perceived as a lower class activity, while chatting on a cell phone is a pursuit routinely engaged in by lawmakers themselves.

Social standing should not be part of making law. A danger to society is a danger to society, and it should make no difference upon which side of the tracks that offense occurs.

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There's a similar, if opposite, situation occurring in the area of domestic abuse. It's seen as trailer park stuff, too lowbrow for the legislatures to dirty their hands with, even if it does so often result in death.

This perception is wrong, of course. It's just that we seldom hear of abuse in the "better" side of town, because more educated people are less likely to turn to guns as a solution.

The abject helplessness that women feel as they futilely appeal to the judicial system for help is hard to describe for those of us who have not been through the anguish of living each day in fear for our lives.

Judges are reluctant to take away the boyfriend's guns and knives. Restraining orders are effective only to the degree that the man in question feels bound to respect them. Plenty of state laws exist to deal with violence after it occurs, but that is slim comfort to a woman who is being stalked.

Little law exists to prevent that violence from happening in the first place. That's why Del. Chris Shank's bill to use technology to prevent domestic violence is so important and so needed.

Shank would outfit abusers with GPS tracking devises, which would put some teeth into largely impotent protective orders. If the offender gets too close to the victim, police are notified. Under this system, the woman is also called on her cell phone to make sure it's not a coincidental instance of both passing along the same street or through the same store.

The O'Malley administration is introducing its own domestic-abuse bills, which would prohibit domestic abusers from owning guns. That's probably not a bad idea, but Shank's plan is probably more effective. Guns, especially in this county, are not particularly hard to come by, even if one has been "prohibited" from possessing one. And even without a gun, plenty of damage can be done with a knife, an extension cord or a can of lighter fluid and a match.

Keeping distance between abuser and victim is the key.

You have to ask the question, what will allow the victim to sleep better at night - the knowledge that the man doesn't have a gun, or the knowledge that if he comes creeping up in the middle of the night an alarm will go off in the police station?

Hardly two or three months ever seem to go by in the Tri-State area, without some act of deadly violence committed by a man who had no regard for a piece of paper issued by the courts.

And with greater tensions caused by increasingly strained financial situations, it's doubtful this trend will do anything but accelerate. Obviously, too many of today's laws only become effective after the fact.

A fairly recent tragedy that saw the deaths of a woman and a Smithsburg police officer has drawn appeals for the state to hold on to, and use, its death penalty laws.

This may offer some degree of comfort to the living, but does nothing for the dead. The ideal solution is not the ultimate punishment for the murderer, but laws that will prevent murder from happening in the first place.

Legislatures are creaky old things that always seem to be at the forefront of looking into the past for answers. Shank's bill, which is law in some other states, is indeed something different and indeed relies on technology, which isn't always in lawmakers' comfort zones.

But we already have security systems that sound alarms in police stations, requiring the dispatch of officers. Usually these alarms prove to be false, but the calls still have to be answered.

So the question is this: If our system allows for technology to protect buildings and property, can the General Assembly look a terrified woman in the eye and say that we can use technology to protect a warehouse, but we can't use technology to protect a human life? If that question is asked, Shank's admirable bill should pass without a dissenting vote.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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