Court orders don't protect all

Violations of protective orders, peace orders at root of attacks

August 27, 2011|By DON AINES |
  • Cherie Sue Myers is shown in this photo. Myers' former boyfriend is awaiting trial on charges of violating a peace order and assaulting her on Aug. 5.
By Don Aines, Staff Writer

Protective orders are meant to stop domestic violence, but a person who successfully petitioned for one should realize they are not foolproof and should have a safety plan, Kelly Clopper, an attorney for Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused, or CASA, advises.

"It depends on the respondent (the person accused of the abusive conduct). If they are someone who cares about consequences, they won't violate a protective order," Clopper said recently. "Those who don't, will violate."

"It's a piece of paper. All you can hope is he will obey it and not get in any more trouble with the law," said Cherie Sue Myers, of Hagerstown, whose former boyfriend is awaiting trial on charges of violating a peace order and assaulting her on Aug. 5.

Or, as another woman, who had obtained a peace order on behalf of her teenage daughter, put it: "You can start a good fire with it and that's about it."

Court records showed that in that case, the man was charged with failing to comply with the peace order on several occasions, with one entry showing a guilty plea to one of five violations consolidated into a single case.

"I've been to the courthouse so much. It's sad when the judge knows your name," said the teenager's mother, who asked not to be identified to protect her daughter's privacy.

Protective orders are usually sought in domestic violence situations against people with whom the person filing for the protection has had an intimate relationship, Clopper said.

Peace orders can be obtained through District Court for disputes with neighbors, abusive boyfriends and harassment by co-workers, Deputy State's Attorney Joseph Michael said.

Heather Harris of Hagerstown was granted a temporary peace order against former boyfriend Randy Houston McPeak of Berkeley Springs, W.Va. About two weeks later, on June 10, she was fatally wounded in her Dual Highway home. McPeak is awaiting trial on first-degree murder charges in her death.

In 2007, Alison L. Munson was granted a protective order against longtime boyfriend Douglas Wayne Pryor, but was fatally stabbed by him a few weeks later. Pryor also shot and killed Smithsburg Police Officer Christopher Shane Nicholson.

Pryor later entered into a plea agreement in their deaths and was sentenced to multiple life sentences.

Each year in Washington County, CASA serves about 2,000 people, providing a range of aid, including crisis intervention, a hotline, legal guidance, and counseling and shelter services, Vicki Sadehvandi, executive director of CASA, said.

The shelter's 40 beds and six cribs were full, she said during a recent interview.

On average, a woman will be abused six to eight times before she decides to leave an abusive relationship," Sadehvandi said. "Some never leave ... for some the first punch is enough."

When a woman or man does leave an abusive relationship, there are precautions to take beyond a protective order, Sadehvandi and Clopper said. CASA can suggest safety planning strategies to help abused partners, they said.

Extra precautions

Moving into a shelter, leaving the area or staying with friends or relatives are some of the options available to those in fear of another, Sadehvandi said. For those who remain in their homes, she suggests changing locks, taking different routes to work, installing alarm systems and making family and friends aware of the situation.

"Don't be afraid you're imposing on people. It's your life, after all," Sadehvandi said.

A safety plan should include a safe location for the person seeking a peace order or protective order to stay if they believe they are in danger, Washington County Sheriff Douglas W. Mullendore said.

That place should be known only to family members and law enforcement officers and the person should take along enough cash, clothing and other necessities to last a few days, he said.

A person should have a cellphone, Mullendore said, noting that even a deactivated cellphone can be used to call 911 in an emergency.

When children are involved, the petitioner should discuss the protective order with school administrators so they are aware of any domestic violence issues or custody disputes, Mullendore said.

It's important to make sure neighbors are aware of the situation, he said.

"I think we get more calls from third parties than petitioners," Mullendore said, referring to people who witness an assault or other protective order violation occurring.

As far as having pepper spray or other weapons on their person or in their residence, Mullendore advised caution. In the case of an assault, the victim might not be able to get to them in time, he said.

Myers said she used pepper spray when she was attacked, to no avail.

Despite that and other precautions Myers had taken during the four months since she had gotten a peace order, she did not feel safe. "I was constantly looking over my shoulder ... peeking around to see if he was hiding in the bushes," she said.

'Clear and convincing'

Maryland District Court records showed that 1,087 domestic violence petitions were filed in Washington County in 2010, a category that includes abuse of children and vulnerable adults as well as domestic partners. There were 674 protective order hearings last year and 358 permanent orders were granted.

Of 781 peace order petitions filed in the county last year, 701 temporary orders were granted and 312 permanent orders were issued by district judges.

A District Court official said figures on the number of protective order violations are not readily available. That's the case in part because violations often are filed in conjunction with another crime, such as assault, trespassing or harassment, and not as a protective order violation.

Mullendore estimated that 80 to 100 protective order violation charges are filed each year in Washington County.

Not all petitions for protective orders are granted and when they are, the person it has been taken out against can appeal. One man recently successfully appealed in Circuit Court to have the protective order issued by a District Court judge rescinded, his attorney, Andrea Chee-a-tow, said.

"The standard is clear and convincing evidence that some kind of abusive contact occurred," Chee-a-tow said. Sometimes the subject of a protective or peace order will consent to the order rather than have a hearing, she said.

By doing so, the respondent avoids having a judicial finding of the alleged abuse, something that could complicate a pending divorce or child custody case, she said.

Although no one would deny the seriousness of domestic abuse in the community, Chee-a-tow said it is not unheard of for a person to use a protective order as a way of getting back at a spouse of a significant other.

In addition, there have been cases of those alleging abuse in petitions for protective orders initiating contact with the person against whom they obtained the order, Chee-a-tow said. Such a move can result in the accused being found in violation of the order, she said.

Myers had another perspective, however.

"I don't think the (District Court) commissioners  or the police take it seriously enough," Myers said of the peace order and the alleged violations she reported.

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