Presumed Guilty: On How Restraining Order Laws Enable and Promote Abuse

Posted on November 11, 2013


I’ve had occasion in the last few months to scrutinize my own state’s (Arizona’s) restraining order statutes, which are a study in prejudice, civil rights compromises, and politically coerced naïvety. Their outdated perspective fails even to acknowledge the possibility of misuse let alone recognize the need for remedial actions to undo it.

Restraining orders are issued upon presumptive conclusions (conclusions made without judges ever even knowing who recipients are—to the judges, recipients are just names inked on boilerplate forms), and the laws that authorize these presumptive conclusions likewise presume that restraining order applicants’ motives and allegations are legitimate, that is, that they’re not lying or otherwise acting with malicious intent.

That, you might note, is a lot of presuming.

In criminal law, the state must presume that defendants are innocent; in civil law (restraining orders are civil instruments), defendants may be presumed guilty. What’s outrageous about this with respect to restraining orders is that public allegations made on them may be criminal or criminal in nature, and violations of restraining orders—real or falsely alleged—have criminal consequences. Due process and the presumption of innocence are circumvented entirely; and with these safeguards out of the way, a defendant may be jailed on no valid evidence or for doing something that’s only illegal because a judge issued a restraining order on false grounds that made it so. (A parent who’s under a court-ordered injunction may be jailed, for example, for sending his child a birthday present.)

One of my motives for consulting my state’s restraining order statutes is having absorbed a broad array of stories of restraining order abuse over the past two years. Common themes among these stories are judicial bias; lying and fraud by plaintiffs (applicants); restraining order plaintiffs’ calling, emailing, or texting the people they’ve petitioned restraining orders against (or showing up at their homes or places of work—or following them); and restraining orders’ being serially applied for by plaintiffs whose past orders have been repeatedly dismissed (that is, restraining orders’ being used to harass and torment with impunity).

Those who’ve shared their stories want to know how these abuses are possible and what, if anything, they can do to gain relief from them. The answer to the question of how lies within the laws themselves, which are flawed; the answer to the question of what to do about it may well lie outside of legal bounds entirely, which fact loudly declaims just how terribly flawed those laws are.

Arizona restraining orders are of two sorts, called respectively “injunctions against harassment” and “orders of protection.” They’re defined differently, but the same allegations may be used to obtain either. Most of the excerpted clauses below are drawn directly from Arizona’s protection order statute. Overlap with its sister statute is significant, however, and which order is entered simply depends on whether the plaintiff and defendant are relatives or cohabitants or not.

“[If a court issues an order of protection, the court may do any of the following:] Grant one party the use and exclusive possession of the parties’ residence on a showing that there is reasonable cause to believe that physical harm may otherwise result.”

This means that if your wife/husband or girlfriend/boyfriend alleges you’re dangerous, you may be forcibly evicted from your home (even if you’re the owner of that home). The latitude for satisfying the “reasonable cause” provision is broad and purely discretionary. “Reasonable cause” may be found on nothing more real than the plaintiff’s being persuasive (or having filled out the application right).

“If the other party is accompanied by a law enforcement officer, the other party may return to the residence on one occasion to retrieve belongings.”

This means you can slink back to your house once, with a police officer hovering over your shoulder, to collect a change of socks. Even this opportunity to recover some basic essentials may be denied defendants in other jurisdictions.

“[If a court issues an order of protection, the court may do any of the following:] Restrain the defendant from contacting the plaintiff or other specifically designated persons and from coming near the residence, place of employment or school of the plaintiff or other specifically designated locations or persons on a showing that there is reasonable cause to believe that physical harm may otherwise result.”

This means defendants can be denied access to their children (so-called “specifically designated persons”) based on allegations of danger that may be false.

“[If a court issues an order of protection, the court may do any of the following:] Grant the petitioner the exclusive care, custody or control of any animal that is owned, possessed, leased, kept or held by the petitioner, the respondent or a minor child residing in the residence or household of the petitioner or the respondent, and order the respondent to stay away from the animal and forbid the respondent from taking, transferring, encumbering, concealing, committing an act of cruelty or neglect in violation of section 13-2910 or otherwise disposing of the animal.”

This means defendants can be denied access to the family pet(s), besides.

Note that the linguistic presumption in all of these clauses is that recipients of restraining orders are wife-batterers, child-beaters, and torturers of puppies, and recall that restraining orders are issued without  judges’ even knowing what defendants look like. This is because restraining orders were originally conceived as a deterrent to domestic violence (which, relative to the vast numbers of restraining orders issued each year, is only rarely alleged on them today at all). It’s no wonder then that judicial presumption of defendants’ guilt may be correspondently harsh. Nor is it any wonder that in any number of jurisdictions, an order of protection can be had by a plaintiff’s alleging nothing more substantive than “I’m afraid” (on which basis a judge is authorized to conclude that a defendant is a “credible threat”).

“A peace officer, with or without a warrant, may arrest a person if the peace officer has probable cause to believe that the person has violated section 13-2810 by disobeying or resisting an order that is issued in any jurisdiction in this state pursuant to this section, whether or not such violation occurred in the presence of the officer.”

This means you can be arrested and jailed based on nothing more certain than the plaintiff’s word that a violation of a court order was committed. More than one respondent to this blog has reported being arrested and jailed for a lengthy period on fraudulent allegations. Some, unsurprisingly, have lost their jobs as a consequence (on top of being denied home, money, and property).

“There is no statutory limit on the number of petitions for protective orders that a plaintiff may file.”

This observation, drawn from Arizona’s Domestic Violence Civil Benchbook, means there’s no restriction on the number of restraining orders a single plaintiff may petition, which means a single plaintiff may continuously reapply for restraining orders even upon previous applications’ having been denied.

Renewing already granted orders (which may have been false to begin with) requires no new evidence at all. Reapplying after prior applications have been denied just requires that the grounds for the latest application be different, which is of course no impediment if those grounds are made up. As search terms like this one reveal, the same sort of harassment can be accomplished by false allegations to the police: “boyfriends ex keeps calling police with false allegations.” Unscrupulous plaintiffs can perpetually harass targets of their wrath this way—and do.

No restrictions whatever are placed upon plaintiffs’ actions, which means that they’re free to bait, taunt, entrap, or stalk defendants on restraining orders they’ve successfully petitioned with impunity. And neither false allegations to the police nor false allegations to the courts (felony perjury) are ever prosecuted.

“A fee shall not be charged for filing a petition under this section or for service of process.”

This means the process is entirely free of charge.

Copyright © 2013