Look to new approach to domestic violence

info@islandpacket.comJuly 17, 2012 

Instead of trying to continue the practice of issuing uniform traffic tickets for misdemeanor criminal domestic violence charges, state Attorney General Alan Wilson might do better to find out more about how our solicitor handles such cases and why.

Wilson disagrees with a recent Court of Appeals decision that police officers can't hand out a traffic ticket for a criminal domestic violence offense the officer did not witness. To charge someone, the appellate court said, they must first get an arrest warrant from a magistrate.

Wilson has asked the state Supreme Court to weigh in, saying the decision will make it more difficult and time-consuming for officers to charge someone with domestic violence.

We can understand why Wilson wants to continue the practice. Getting an arrest warrant first does slow the process, and it's unusual for officers to witness domestic violence firsthand. They usually are called in after the fact. Officers had issued such tickets on the premise that if they saw evidence that a crime had been "freshly committed," they could do so.

But the Court of Appeals said the law specifically omitted that "freshly committed" threshold from the provision about using a uniform traffic ticket.

Clarification from the Supreme Court would be helpful, but it might be time to rethink the approach to first-offense criminal domestic violence.

In 2006, Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone got a state law change, written to apply only to his five-county circuit, that allows his office to handle first offense domestic violence cases.

Stone wanted to stop early on what would very likely become a cycle of violence. His request for the change that year came after three men were charged with murder in domestic-related disputes in Jasper and Beaufort counties.

Stone said then he thought the deaths could have been prevented if his office had prosecuted previous offenses against those charged with murder. He also was troubled by the high number of criminal domestic violence cases in the circuit.

In 2004, the 14th Circuit ranked third among the state's 16 circuits, with 2,963 domestic-violence victims, but it ranked eighth in population. The 5th Circuit, which includes Columbia and with about 161,000 more residents, had 1,000 fewer victims that year.

Prosecuting first offenses in General Sessions Court rather than Magistrate Court gives victims access to the resources of the Solicitor's Office. That includes an attorney instead of a police officer to prosecute the case and a victim's advocate. Support for the victim, who might be reluctant to testify, can be very important in getting a conviction.

Six years later, Stone still expresses confidence in his approach. Neither his office nor the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office appear to be hampered by a process that requires arrest warrants and involves a county grand jury. And they aren't affected by the recent court ruling, which has other authorities worried about how to proceed with their cases.

Stone said recently, "We wanted (the 2006) law passed to send a message to those charged with criminal domestic violence that we are not hearing your case in the same courtroom as speeding tickets."

That is a strong message, and it's one that the rest of the state should hear, too. If it can work here, it can work elsewhere.

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