Battering Women to Protect Battered Women: Using Massachusetts’s Policies to Examine Restraining Order Publicity and Its Damages

Posted on September 10, 2014

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“In the event a Restraining Order is issued for any period of time (initial 10 days or subsequent extension/dismissal), you will be listed in the statewide Domestic Violence Registry system. This could impact your ability to obtain or maintain employment in government, law enforcement, certain medical fields, or social services, or to work with/coach children. Impoundment of the restraining order does not expunge your listing on the statewide domestic violence registry, as certain government agencies and private companies with significant government contracts still have access to the registry system.”

—“Massachusetts Restraining Orders Procedure and Ramifications

I’ve just been corresponding with a Florida woman named Ally who had a domestic violence (209A) protection order petitioned against her in Massachusetts alleging she was a danger to a former boyfriend (these kinds of instruments can be obtained by plaintiffs who don’t even live in the same state or country as their defendants).

Ally contends the allegations against her are false and has been living in hell for over a year.

She’s surviving day to day and can’t afford to procure the services of an attorney. Ally’s trying to defend herself and clear her name with no money and from another time zone. She’s preparing a motion on her own (very possibly ill-fated) to request that the order against her be expunged, because it has ruined her employability.

Note: As the epigraph explains, even were Ally to succeed in having the order simply dismissed (which is itself unlikely), she would still remain registered as a domestic abuser.

From a draft of Ally’s “Motion to Expunge”:

Defendant was refused jobs, [is] not allowed to attend [or] volunteer [at] her daughter’s school events, [and has had] numerous other rights taken away due to Plaintiff’s Abuse of Process and Fraudulent Allegations and written Affidavit to the Court. This continues today.

Note: To successfully combat prosecutions like this requires money…which prosecutions like this prevent their defendants from earning.

A recent post on this blog observed the court’s schizophrenic regard toward restraining orders. On the one hand, they’re viewed by judges as urgent, potentially life-or-death matters; on the other hand, they’re viewed as inconsequential as long as defendants mind their prohibitions for the prescribed period of time.

Ignored is that adjudications both initiated and finalized in minutes yield rulings that are entered into state and national law enforcement databases indefinitely. Orders become “inactive” once they expire, but they don’t disappear. A woman like Ally remains for the rest of her life marked as a perpetrator of domestic violence.

In contrast—and the contrast is a telling one—consider this excerpt from a “Memoradum” issued by the Massachusetts Supreme Court last year on “Internet Dissemination of Personal Protection Order Information.”

As transparency and improved access remain court goals, it is important that we not unknowingly or unintentionally release victims’ personally identifiable information through the Internet, recognizing that this information is easily accessed and that access to such information could be dangerous to victims. Additionally, it has been brought to our attention that current federal law prohibits providing information over the Internet about personal protection orders (PPOs) that would be likely to reveal the identity or location of the petitioner (“PPO Information”).

18 USC 2265(d)(3) states:

A State, Indian tribe, or territory shall not make available publicly on the Internet any information regarding the registration, filing of a petition for, or issuance of a protection order, restraining order, or injunction in either the issuing or enforcing State, tribal or territorial jurisdiction, if such publication would be likely to publicly reveal the identity or location of the party protected under such order. A State, Indian tribe, or territory may share court-generated and law enforcement-generated information contained in secure, governmental registries for protection order enforcement purposes.

The privacy of restraining order plaintiffs (who are nominated “victims”) is to be tightly guarded.

Note: Based on “determinations” formed in minutes and possibly based on nothing more substantial than accusation, a plaintiff is deemed a “victim” whose identity and privacy must be protected, and the defendant is deemed a “violent threat” whose privacy is accordingly due no consideration. After the term of the restraining order has flown, the “danger” to the accuser is assumed to have been resolved, but the accuser continues to enjoy anonymity while the accused must go on bearing the implications of the restraining order for the rest of his or her life, exactly as if those implications were a criminal sentence.

Only in the recent past, in fact, did it even become possible to remove a Massachusetts restraining order defendant’s name from the domestic violence registry if it were found that allegations against him or her were substantially or totally false. (Remember that such allegations are made ex parte in the time it takes to place an order at McDonald’s.)

Until recently, it was almost impossible to expunge a person’s record with the domestic violence registry once the initial entry was made. In the 2006 case of Commissioner of Probation v. Adams, it was recognized that a judge has the inherent authority to expunge a record of an abuse [from the] violence registry system in the rare and limited circumstance that the judge finds the order was obtained through fraud on the court.

Note: The phrase rare…circumstance (of fraud) is emphasized in the original document quoted above (“Massachusetts Restraining Orders Procedure and Ramifications”), which was authored by an all-female law firm (Mavrides Law of Boston). Allegations of rampant restraining order misuse in Massachusetts have actually been the subject of press coverage and at least one law review monograph, and one of the most outspoken critics of restraining orders, attorney Gregory Hession, practices in Massachusetts and has for many years reported that restraining orders are “out of control.”

The previous two posts on this blog were responses to allegations that those who criticize restraining orders and domestic violence laws are “opposed to the battered women’s movement.” Defenders of these laws are urged to ask themselves how Ally’s wanting to be able to provide for her daughter and one day attend her daughter’s graduation has anything to do with battered women at all.

They’re also urged to ask themselves how denying Ally these opportunities isn’t itself an act of brutality.

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