Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Conditions of criminal pretrial release shouldn't abate civil abuse prevention order, Mass. court rules

In a decision today, the Massachusetts Appeals Court reversed and remanded a trial judge's refusal to extend an abuse prevention order.

The order meant to protect a woman who had testified to physical abuse by her husband, who blamed her for the premature birth of their daughter.  According to testimony, "[a]s she tried to nurse the baby, the defendant painfully grabbed at her breast"; he shoved the woman; he threatened her and the baby; and he called the woman "'a horrible mother because [she] wasn't fat enough and wasn't eating enough.'"  The man was charged with (criminal) assault and battery.

The trial judge refused to extend the abuse prevention order because he improperly considered conditions of pretrial release and involvement of the Department of Children and Families as duplicative of the order.  The court explained:

Conditions of pretrial release are within a judge's broad discretion, and the civilian victim has no right to be heard on the matter. Furthermore, conditions of pretrial release are terminated automatically when the criminal case is disposed.

For these reasons, conditions of pretrial release, even if they encompass the same conditions as an abuse prevention order, are no substitute for an abuse prevention order. The same reasoning applies to DCF involvement. DCF has no power to incarcerate a person for engaging in abuse of a household or family member. At most, DCF can take custody of a child and refer the matter to law enforcement....

Rather than rely on these factors, a judge should simply determine whether the plaintiff has shown "a reasonable fear of imminent serious physical harm[,]" ... or whether the plaintiff has "suffered physical abuse" or "past sexual abuse" and "an order [i]s necessary to protect her from the impact of that abuse." [Citations omitted.]

The ruling thus marks the significant differences among civil, criminal, and administrative processes, each with its separate aims, even when all three are implicated in a case of domestic violence.

The case is Vera V. v. Seymour S., No. 19-P-1674 (Mass. App. Ct. Aug. 28, 2020).  Justice Joseph M. Ditkoff wrote the opinion for himself, Justice Gregory I. Massing, and Justice Sookyoung Shin.

(U.S. Air Force graphic by Staff Sgt. Michael Means.)

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