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Senator, sheriff call for stronger protections

August 27, 2011|By DON AINES | dona@herald-mail.com
  • Washington County Sheriff Douglas W. Mullendore talks about the department's new GPS ankle bracelets.
By Ric Dugan, Staff Photographer

Randy Houston McPeak of Berkeley Springs, W.Va., is being held without bond in the Washington County Detention Center, charged in the June 10 shooting death of Heather Harris, his former girlfriend.

Howard Ray Jenkins II of Hagerstown is being held on $700,000 bond on charges of assaulting his ex-girlfriend, Cherie Sue Myers, and stealing her vehicle on Aug. 5.

Each man also is accused of violating a peace order that had been issued in Washington County District Court.

During the attack, Jenkins threatened to kill Myers, who managed to call 911 on her cell phone, according to the statement of probable cause filed by a Hagerstown Police Department officer.

The officer who went to the scene wrote in the statement of probable cause that when she arrived, Myers "was sitting on the ground in a parking lot with a towel over her face and I observed blood on her hands as well as a small amount in the parking lot."

Before the officer arrived, Jenkins fled in Myers' vehicle when he saw people coming toward him in the parking lot, the charging document alleges.

Before that, court papers allege, "Myers pulled out a can of pepper spray and sprayed Jenkins. Jenkins then began punching Myers in the face and head with his fists repeatedly."

The statement of probable cause alleges that "Jenkins then knocked Myers to the ground and began to kick her in the face and head in excess of 10 times," and threatened to kill her.


'Dramatic difference'

Neither Harris nor Myers qualified for a protective order, which affords stricter legal sanctions for violators than does a peace order.

"There's a dramatic difference between a protective order for domestic violence and a peace order," Washington County Deputy State's Attorney Joseph Michael said.

Protective orders usually involve abuse within intimate relationships in which the parties are married or divorced, or lived together.

Peace orders usually are issued in cases of less intimate relationships.

In the case of a protective order, police are notified and law enforcement agencies "have programs to monitor these cases, specifically in regard to firearms," he said.

Police are not automatically notified when a peace order is issued and the situation remains a civil matter unless a violation occurs, he said.

Protective orders require respondents to surrender their firearms for the period that the order is in effect, Michael said. Peace orders do not.

The disparity between the two types of orders does not take into account that there are cases in which people who do not fall within the legal parameters for a protective order have the kind of intense relationships that can erupt in violence.

That disparity is an issue that state Sen. Christopher Shank, R-Washington, said he hopes to address in the next session of the Maryland General Assembly.

"The issue is, we have two different types of documents," Shank said. "A peace order is also available to people in non-intimate relationships," such as disputes between neighbors, he said.

"The vast majority of people who get peace orders are in these casual relationships, not intimate relationships," Shank said.

It would make sense to move those relationships that currently do not qualify for protective orders but which nevertheless can erupt into violence into the protective order category, he said.

"In the wake of some of the tragedies we've experienced in Washington County ... we need to do whatever we can to beef up some of those laws," Shank said.


Pilot program

"I'd estimate 90 percent of our peace orders are for neighbor-on-neighbor or friend-on-friend disputes" and are less likely to escalate to violence, Washington County Sheriff Douglas W. Mullendore said.

But Mullendore said he believes the other 10 percent, involving people who are in intimate relationships, should either be in the same category as protective orders or have an equivalent category.

"Either one requires a change of legislation," Mullendore said.

One measure Shank said he believes is worthy of expanding is a pilot program he supported that tracks protective order violators using the global positioning satellite (GPS) system. Violators can be ordered by the court to wear an ankle bracelet that tracks their movements through the GPS, said Mullendore, who in 2010 testified before the General Assembly in support of the program.

Exact figures of violations were not available, but Mullendore estimated that from 80 to 100 protective order violation charges are filed each year in Washington County.

Without corroborating witnesses or other evidence, it can be difficult for a person to prove that someone has violated a protective order by trespassing — such as stalking or vandalism at the petitioner's home or workplace — or committing some other violation. The GPS program, by tracking the person wearing the ankle bracelet, provides evidence of a violation and can alert law enforcement officers and the petitioner when a violation is taking place, Mullendore said.

The pilot program was approved by the General Assembly last year and Washington County made it operational earlier this year.

To be placed in the monitoring program, a person must either have been charged with violating a protective order, or convicted of a violation and placed in the program as an alternative to jail or other sanctions, Mullendore said.

So far it has been used on two people and neither one has since violated the protective order by trespassing, stalking or other actions which could be tracked and mapped by the device, Mullendore said. Had either done so, or tampered with the device, law enforcement officers would have been notified and responded to the scene, he said.

The system also alerts the petitioners if they so wish, the sheriff said.

The Sheriff's Office has three of the ankle bracelet tracking devices, but that number could be expanded if more violators were ordered by district court judges to wear them, Mullendore said.

"I think it has the potential to be very effective," said District Judge Dana Moylan Wright, who ordered the two initial subjects into the pilot program.

Not every violator is appropriate for inclusion in the program, she said.

The first consideration, Wright said, is the safety of the victim and whether the violator of the protective order poses a credible threat to the victim.

In some cases, she said, sending a person who violates a protective order to jail is the best course of action for the protection of the victim.

"When I have a safety concern I'm going to err on the side of caution," Wright said. "A GPS tracking unit is not enough to satisfy me that the victim is safe."


The process

Each year hundreds of people in Washington County seek protective orders or peace orders because of domestic violence, abusive contact or other reasons, but there are steps to be taken in the process of obtaining a permanent order, according to attorney Kelly Clopper of Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused, or CASA.

The process begins in District Court, although CASA can provide guidance, particularly for those faced with abusive partners, Clopper said.

Protective orders may be obtained by going before a District Court judge. A district court commissioner can issue an interim protective order after regular business hours and on weekends, Clopper said.

"Interim orders are good for 48 hours once the court reopens for business," Clopper said.

The interim order takes effect when the respondent is served by a law enforcement officer, according to the Maryland Judiciary publication "Peace and Protective Orders."

The petitioner asks for a hearing before a district judge, who can issue a temporary protective order, Clopper said. Within seven days of the order being issued, a final protective order hearing is scheduled, she said.

"Protective orders can be good for up to a year," said Clopper, who has been with CASA for eight years. "They can be extended at the end of the year under some circumstances ... but you can't wait until the day it expires to ask for another hearing."

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