Some Myths about Restraining Orders

Posted on May 29, 2013 by


FALSE: Restraining orders are mostly sought against batterers.

Redress of domestic violence was the original impetus behind the conception of restraining orders 30 years ago. Today, however, violence is seldom a factor in restraining order cases. This isn’t because violence has been stamped out—far from it—but because relative to the vast number of restraining orders petitioned from our courts each year in which violence plays no part at all, those involving violence or allegations of violence are few. As many restraining orders may now be based on Facebook annoyances as on domestic assault.

FALSE: Restraining order fraud happens only occasionally.

Fraud of a greater or lesser kind is probably more the rule than the exception. Allegations made on restraining orders are rarely without a subjective element: I feel harassed, I feel afraid, I feel in danger. Judges are responding more like advice columnists when they sign off on restraining orders than they are like criminal scientists, that is, they’re responding to alleged emotional states more than anything concrete. “I feel afraid” may in fact be the only allegation needed for an applicant to have a restraining order approved. Disregarding whether this assertion should be sufficient grounds for a restraining order’s being issued, allegations of fear can be falsified, obviously, or greatly exaggerated to mask any number of ulterior motives. Maybe someone is really just peeved and feeling spiteful. Maybe one domestic partner has designs on the other’s property or wants to gain sole custody of the kids. Maybe a dissatisfied boyfriend or girlfriend doesn’t want to make a difficult break-up call. Maybe an adulterer doesn’t want news of an affair getting back to his or her spouse. Maybe someone has a pathological need for attention (“Save me!”). Or maybe someone just wants to trash someone else’s life for the sheer wicked satisfaction of it. Neither restraining order applications nor their applicants receive any special scrutiny. An applicant is in and out of the courthouse door in less than an hour. And most of that time is spent filling out the form(s) and hanging around to rap with a judge for five or 10 minutes.

FALSE: Only residents of trailer parks receive restraining orders.

Restraining orders are issued to people in all economic brackets and fields of employ and who have achieved any level of scholastic or professional success. Those who’ve responded to this blog over the past two years are people with advanced degrees (and students seeking them), teachers, police officers, attorneys, public officials, and businessmen and -women, among others. In fact most respondents who allege they’re victims of false restraining orders are both highly sensitive and highly literate.

FALSE: Only guttersnipes defraud the courts to obtain restraining orders.

Casual lying or sensationalizing of allegations cuts across all economic and social divides. Truly committal and calculated lying, though, seems more common among the intelligent, educated, and socially successful—whose credentials, moreover, make a fraud that much more plausible in the eyes of a judge. Remember we’re talking here about a five- or 10-minute screen test. A successful performance in a restraining order interview doesn’t have to be Oscar-worthy. With intelligence, education, and social success, also, come a surer faith in one’s personal value and entitlement to special treatment. The greater someone’s sense of entitlement, the greater his or her sense of being above the law. Movers and shakers are accustomed to viewing others as competitors who either need to be wooed, subdued, or eliminated. Cut-throat comes easier and more naturally to them than it does to soccer moms. The politically oriented are more practiced at, adept at, and indifferent to lying to achieve their desired ends. They perceive life and the manipulation of others as a game.

FALSE: The issuance of restraining orders is fact/evidence-based.

Though they invariably criminalize their recipients by mere implication, restraining orders are civil not criminal instruments. Consequently no standard of proof is applied to them at all. Because they’re issued ex parte, furthermore, their sole basis is the word of their applicants and those applicants’ representations/interpretations of whatever evidence they may provide to the judge during a few-minute interview. Restraining order recipients are completely in the dark until a constable shows up on the lawn, and if they don’t immediately appeal, no contradictory testimony or evidence is so much as heard by the court, let alone considered. A judge doesn’t even know what the person looks like whom s/he’s issued a restraining order against.

FALSE: Having a restraining order on your record is no biggie.

Restraining orders routinely implicate their recipients as serial harassers, violent threats, sexual deviants, and stalkers (in sum, sickos). Allegations of this sort don’t have to be made explicitly; there are little tick boxes on the forms that allow them to be made implicitly. And just the phrase restraining order conveys these connotations, irrespective of what’s alleged. Not only are restraining orders public record and subject to discovery by employers or would-be employers, significant others, authorities, and officers of the court; there are also movements afoot to have restraining order recipients cataloged in registries like sex offenders, and some such registries already exist. These registries don’t just make the names of restraining order recipients conveniently available to the public; they make finding them out enticing. Those falsely accused on restraining orders of the behaviors identified above are psychologically traumatized and may be indefinitely tormented by fraudulent allegations that endure on public record to corrupt all aspects of their lives, in extreme cases causing social isolation tantamount to false imprisonment. Respondents to this blog have wondered if they’re allowed to relocate, to travel, to do volunteer work, to become police officers, to adopt, or even to talk to other people.

I’ll debunk other misconceptions concerning restraining orders in time, possibly by making additions to this post. One of the most common of these is manifested in the question, “Why would someone lie to get a restraining order?” Below is a brief response to this question lifted from this blog’s Q & A page (see also here):

There are many [reasons]. Here are some: to spitefully subject the defendant to public humiliation and/or to ruin him or her personally or professionally (petty revenge), to gain custody of children or possession of property from a domestic partner, to terminate an illicit relationship (or gag an extramarital friend or lover so s/he feels intimidated and can’t speak to your spouse), to lame or discredit a romantic or business rival (exes’ new spouses or love interests are popular targets), to gain power or leverage over someone (stalkers have obtained restraining orders against their victims), or simply to get attention.

In short, there are no limits on the ways people can suck when they’re handed a golden ticket to.

Copyright © 2013