Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Good Intentions, Bad Outcomes

As longtime readers know, I deliberately try to keep my personal life off of here. I'm making an exception for right now because the matter at hand isn't simply an issue of interesting anecdotes, but instead is the springboard for a much broader issue I'd like to address. Or, in other words, what my family went through the past five months was a laborious, protracted nightmare that did not draw to a close until two days ago. I was advised not to write about anything about it or to mention it in any public forum until matters had been firmly settled once and for all. Thankfully, a emotionally taxing ordeal is over forever and I am thankful that I no longer need to worry about the outcome.

The issue in question is a fairly straightforward one. It is not only straightforward but it is agonizingly commonplace. In short, for several months my youngest sister was in a relationship with an abusive boyfriend. The last six months they were together, his drinking increased, his verbally abusive behavior towards her grew in frequency, and he began to border on threats of physical violence towards her. All of this came to a tipping point one evening, when, after having endured a particularly awful round of yelled threats and menacing violations of personal space, my sister became fearful enough for her physical safety that she hit him. It was a clear matter of simple self-defense. Yet, when the police arrived a few moment later and noticed that he had a black eye and chipped tooth while she herself had no visible marks, my sister was summarily arrested for Domestic Violence. She spent twelve lovely hours in a jail, the minimum amount of time one must spend according to the provisions of that flawed piece of legislation, and then was informed she'd be obligated to go through preliminary hearings and a trial before a judge.

The deepest irony among many in this situation was that the law under which she was charged had originally been designed to protect battered spouses/common-law-wives/girlfriends against abusive men. In this circumstance, the exceptionally strict parameters of the statute and the rigid way it was required to be enforced left the officer called to the scene no choice but to arrest her and charge her with a crime. So let me state this very firmly. I don't doubt the motives of those who pushed for this law. Neither do I doubt the sincerity and nobility of their intentions, but what was enacted into law was overkill. Who bears the blame in drafting the bill is not nearly as important to me as to the fact that no one bothered to take into account its potential drawbacks.

As for the resolution of the matter, after the family and my parents had expended much time, money, and energy into the matter, the charge was rightly thrown out of court by the judge. Yet again I saw how slowly the hands of justice work and how utterly flawed our court system can be. Had it not been for the skillful work of my sister's attorney, the District Attorney might have forced a jury trial. The plaintiff never showed up in court, at which point the pending charge or charges are supposed to be dismissed automatically. However, the D.A. made a motion to try to bring the arresting officer to the courtroom in place of the defendant, a maneuver technically against the rules, but thankfully the officer was unwilling to do so. After being informed of this, the judge summarily dismissed the case. I'm not sure how the arresting officer could have been of any help to the prosecution anyway, since he wasn't an eyewitness to what happened.

The details are important in that they underscore a real world example of how bad laws affect real people. The larger point I wish to make is that the times in which we live clamor for reform. Indeed, I and many of you have urged for significant change in every imaginable area. This is well and good. However, the lesson I have pulled from this circumstance is that we ought to make sure that the laws and statutes that are crafted and then get signed into law do not create new, unforeseen problems in spite of the best of intentions. Sometimes this is unavoidable due to changing circumstances and changing times, but sometimes sloppy logic and knee-jerk overcompensation is highly avoidable if the wording of the bill itself, well prior to being enacted, is sufficiently parsed and checked for both clarity and scope. In our desire to want a resolute fix for a larger societal ill, may we be cautious to not overplay our hand. If we do so, it does no one any good in the end.


Anonymous said...

I don't think the problem in this case was with the law, but with the D.A.'s zeal to prosecute your sister. He exercised poor judgment driven, apparently, by an urge to tally up convictions, without regard for any other consequences. This is simple-minded behavior that, unfortunately, the public often rewards at election time.

I don't think the law needs to be changed, as sometimes women do physically abuse men, and the 12-hour detention is supposed to cool the situation down. Of course, this leads to issues of the nature of detention, conditions in our jails, etc. But changing this law won't fix those problems.

Comrade Kevin said...

You raise good points. I think, though, that the officer on the scene--had he not been hamstrung by the particulars of the law---would have probably been not particularly inclined to arrest her in the first place.

And women do physically abuse men, but the law as written does not take into account self-defense, instead assuming that any act of violence, no matter what the context, must be motivated by malicious intent.

That is what needs to be changed, in my opinion.

Gail said...

Hi Kevin-

thisis an issue very close to "home" for me/us. My daughter being in and out of abusive relationships - and she, in every sense, could have been your sister had she "defended" herself. I agree with you 100% and I am in fear all the time that my daughter will end up arrested for exactly what your sister did.

peace and love

puddy said...

hopefully that person is out of your lives for good and you can all move on now.

sounds like a terrible ordeal.

props to your sister for giving the bastard what he got.

PENolan said...

If your family had not had knowledge of the system and the resources to hire a good attorney, your sister would have been screwed - either because of an overzealous DA or because of problems with the way the law is written.

Sometimes I wonder if lawyers themselves have a hand in crafting laws that eventually lead to More Money for Lawyers. I have confidence that divorce lawyers added all sorts of clauses to NY divorce law so that there's an affordable, easy way to get divorced, and a long term, pain in the neck way that costs $40,000 if it costs a dang penny. But that's just me being cynical. . .

When you consider the trouble we're having with health care reform due to all the people making money off the existing system - it makes the task of reforming anything in America very large.

Thank Goodness your family could protect your sister.

jadedj said...

On my last post you asked me if I thought this was a decadent society. I answered, running amok. I would add to that that we have thrown out what used to be called horse sense in the name of the law. What you are describing here is just that...damned horse sense, or rather the lack of.

Glad your sister got out of it. I hope she's also free of the jerk.

Westcoast Walker said...

Hi Kevin

Thanks for posting this and sharing your family's story and making a necessary plea for legal reform. The laws should definitely provide some leeway for interpretation in situations where there is clearly a power imbalance and should recognize the plight of some women who are victims of ongoing abuse in a relationship.

I am a social worker myself and see this sort of thing all the time unfortunately. Not only does it take a toll on the victim, but the children in these situations suffer tremendous vicarious trauma even if they weren't physically harmed.

It sounds like your sister has a supportive family and this is what often makes the difference. It takes a lot of courage to stand up to an abusive partner and many people (especially those who make the laws) forget about the power issues and how hard to is for many women to leave in these situations.

I wish your sister and family well and hope that there can be some peace now that this is resolved with the courts.

Comrade Kevin said...

Westcoast Walker,

Thanks for your support.

What made the matter difficult is that the ex-boyfriend had one of those Jekyll and Hyde personalities. When he was sober, he was a nice guy. When he was drunk, however, he was verbally abusive and screaming into her face.