Massachusetts Domestic Violence Reform Bill: Not Perfect, But Wise

The subject of Massachusetts domestic violence charges has been elevated to a fever pitch over the last few months. This has been fueled by the case of Jared Remy, who was sentenced in June to life in prison without the possibility of parole for murdering his girlfriend, Jennifer Martel.

The reason why this case has fueled debate over reforming Massachusetts domestic violence laws, is that Remy was a multiple offender with a long history of abusing Ms. Martel and previous girlfriends, and the court system never reined him in. It was claimed that Ms. Martel did not report previous instances of abuse, because she did not want her name to be made public in local police logs, which news reporters regularly plumb for publication. Currently, when a call is made to local police for any reason, the name and address of that caller and any parties involved in the call become public information in the city or town’s police logs. In domestic violence calls, the name of both the victim and the alleged abuser are entered into the police log. Advocates for the abused, including Jane Doe, Inc., a statewide organization that advocates for domestic abuse and rape victims, say that this fact discourages potential victims from calling the police. They say that if a domestic violence victim knew that her (or his) name would not be made public in the police log, they would be “more likely” to summon help.

That claim is somewhat anecdotal, but perhaps that’s true. It’s difficult to know precisely. To deal with this issue, the legislature has passed, and now sent to Governor Deval Patrick‘s desk, a domestic violence reform bill that would shield the names of both the alleged victims of Massachusetts domestic violence, as well as the names of alleged abusers. The relevant names will not appear in police department logs – unless and until the case is prosecuted in court. At that point – once an accused person is arraigned – the names of both the alleged victim and alleged abuser, would become public information (as is the procedure currently.) Supporters of the bill say the confidentiality provisions will encourage more reporting of domestic violence. Weston Police Chief Steven Shaw, supporting the bill, has commented that “My concern is that the way it is now … people that are being abused .. can end up in the paper. People are worried about their image.”

Opponents, including the editorial board of The Boston Globe, as well as the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, publicly oppose the measure on public information grounds as decreasing the transparency needed in these cases. Free speech advocates argue that the bill will shield abusers, as well as the police departments responding to a domestic violence call, from public scrutiny. They argue that greater attention to Jared Remy’s history of assaults, which was available in the public record, might have allowed for an intervention before he killed Martel.

There’s one obvious and major flaw in that reasoning, however: It didn’t. Jared Remy’s history of assaults was fully public, and yet this public information did nothing to rein him in. As a Boston Massachusetts domestic violence lawyer, I feel that on balance, Governor Patrick should sign the bill, with its current confidentiality provisions. Aside from perhaps encouraging more victims to call police if threatened, there is another important reason that I feel the bill should be signed as is: Until an accused abuser is arraigned in court, it is my professional opinion that, on balance, his or her name should not be made public.

As a Massachusetts domestic violence defense attorney, I cannot tell you how many times an otherwise law-abiding, non-dangerous person has been arrested in a domestic violence call. In fact, as I say on the Domestic Violence Law Practice Page of my website, among almost all Massachusetts Police Departments, it is standard operating procedure for patrol officers to arrest and charge at least one party to a domestic violence dispute with assault & battery, no matter how minor the incident. The “assault & battery” is often nothing more than a slight touching, by an otherwise non-violent person, who very often has no prior criminal record of any kind. The next thing he or she knows, they are arrested – and their name and address appears in the police log published in the local paper – because perhaps their spouse or partner accuses them of “shoving” them. That is entirely unjust. I don’t object to a defendant’s name becoming public once a case is arraigned in court, but I’ve seen enormous damage done to the names and reputations of perfectly ‘normal’ and non-violent everyday people, simply because an argument got out of hand and the police were called.

On balance, Governor Patrick should sign the bill as is.

The bill also includes separate provisions toughening penalties for repeat domestic violence offenders, creates new punishments for strangulation and suffocation, and allows victims to take 15 days off from work to recover from the incident, or to obtain medical attention and/or mental health counseling. I certainly don’t object to these provisions, either.

Post Script – Aug. 12 2014: Governor Deval Patrick signed this bill into law on Friday, August 8 2014.