How “Preponderance of the Evidence” Rewards Restraining Order Fraud and Why Bigger Lies Work Better than Smaller Ones

Posted on May 9, 2014

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Recent posts to this blog have discussed American evidentiary standards and stressed that the standard applied to civil restraining orders, “preponderance of the evidence,” has nothing to do with proof. According to this standard, a judge should find in favor of a restraining order plaintiff if s/he figures there’s a greater probability that the plaintiff’s claims are true than that they’re totally false.

The word to bear in mind here is probability.

I’ll give you a for-instance. Let’s say Person A applies for a protection order and claims Person B threatened to rape her and then kill her with a butcher knife.

Along with the allegation of the rape/death threat, Person A tells Judge A that she and Person B dated for six months, that she dumped Person B, that he refuses to leave her alone and insists that she’s the love of his life and that if he can’t have her no one will, and that she’s terrified of him. Person A shows Judge A a text message from Person B that says, “I want what’s mine.” She also tells Judge A that Person B insisted that she engage in sexual role-playing during their relationship and that he liked to spank her. “Sometimes he was very rough and scared me,” Person A says. Too, she says she thinks Person B jealously monitored her email correspondence and adds that he frequently accused her of seeing other men behind his back (“He would just suddenly go off sometimes for no reason”).

Judge A doesn’t know Person A, and all he knows of Person B is what Person A has just told him. How does Judge A determine that there’s a greater probability Person A is telling the truth than that she’s lying? With no certain facts other than a text message, he can’t. He issues a protection order anyway, because Person A might be telling the truth, and he doesn’t want to be answerable to his conscience or the public if she were to come to harm.

Person B, who didn’t actually threaten to rape or kill Person A, is more than unsettled by the allegations against him and appears in court to deny them. He tells Judge B that he and Person A dated for six months after she hit on him at a party, and that they had discussed moving in together but that he discovered Person A had been cheating on him and angrily demanded that she return expensive gifts she had asked him to buy for her during their relationship. He tells the judge that Person A laughed at him and called him “a fool,” and that he’s never been abused this way before. “She was horrible to me,” he says, “and I was only ever nice to her.” Person B also tells the judge that Person A was sexually withholding, and would often, he realizes now, use the promise of sex to manipulate him, and that he had never hit her, even in fun. “There was no role-playing,” he says indignantly. “That’s a complete lie!” Person B admits that he may have heatedly called Person A “a sick bitch” when he last saw her and slammed her apartment door behind him. Person B also admits to sending the text message, but testifies that he’s never struck or even threatened another person in his life.

Judge B has no more ascertainable grounds for determining whether Person B threatened to rape and kill Person A than Judge A did previously. On the basis of Person B’s admitted rage and reason for feeling vengeful, however, he rules in favor of Person A and affirms the protection order. The alleged rape/death threat, which may have been influential but was otherwise irrelevant, is preserved on public record along with allegations of “constant temper tantrums,” “violent sex games,” and stalking.  The protection order is also recorded in the databases of state and federal police.

Person A circulates the details she shared with the court, which are embellished and further honed with repetition, among her friends and colleagues over the ensuing days, months, and years.

Person B, a widowed engineer, is fired from the position he’d occupied for over a decade with a national defense contractor. Consequent to his being terminated, Person B’s daughter, whose tuition at an Ivy League university he’d been paying, is forced to drop out of school 12 months shy of graduation with honors.

This scenario, though purely allegorical, is mirrored to a greater or lesser extent by thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of restraining order cases adjudicated in this country every year (false allegations, including false criminal allegations, may moreover be made to the police, besides the courts). Its gender reversal (Person A = male; Person B = female), while less probable, is also entirely possible. Women, too, are falsely accused of threats, violence, stalking, and other crimes on restraining orders, including felonies. Feminist advocates of restraining orders, consciously or not, defend the daily dismemberment of women’s lives across the map.

(Besides facing loss of employment and employability, victims of false allegations and distortions of the truth may be forcibly removed from their homes and prohibited access to their children, money, and property. Legal derelictions, besides, make such victims vulnerable to further state interference, including arrest and incarceration, upon additional false reports’ being filed by malicious accusers.)

The point of the above hypothetical is neither to deny that real rape or death threats are made nor to characterize complainants of such abuse as liars. Unquestionably many complainants, particularly of extreme abuse, honestly and reasonably fear for their safety. Its point, rather, is to illustrate that the truth of any allegation made pursuant to the procurement of a restraining order is literally irrelevant (except to the accused). It’s not the brief of judges of restraining order cases to determine whether individual facts are truthfully reported, nor is ascertainment of the truth or falsity of individual allegations required by the standard of “preponderance of the evidence.”

This standard is satisfied by probability, which is gauged according to a judge’s personal lights. It doesn’t depend on certainty of anything.

Emphatically noteworthy of a standard that’s satisfied by probability is that it acknowledges from the start that truth doesn’t matter. A standard that relied on proof wouldn’t contain the word probability or its derivatives at all.

Consider further that lying is rarely if ever prosecuted or even acknowledged by the courts.

Consider finally this question: If the object of a restraining order applicant is to win—and it always is—what tactics will most assuredly be effective in persuading a judge that his or her allegations (on balance) are probably true? The answer is lying, lying luridly and sensationally, and lying copiously, particularly about facts that are impossible to verify (facts that in a criminal case would be discounted or dismissed).

Because “preponderance of the evidence” is based on the overall forcefulness of allegations rather than the truth or falsity of one, two, or a few of them, the most effective way to win a restraining order case is to lie hugely.

As should be obvious, “preponderance of the evidence” is seldom if ever actually satisfied in cases where restraining orders are awarded, because specific claims on restraining order applications are often impossible to accurately assess as even 51% likely to be true. “Satisfaction” of this standard is based, instead, on the acceptance that the sum total of allegations (their tenor or essence), which collectively support an overarching allegation of “fear” or “distress,” can together be called “preponderant” (which means more potent, convincing, or influential).

In other words, there’s no point in malicious litigants’ lying small.

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