Massachusetts Domestic Violence Orders Now Include On-line Dating Relationships

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) issued a major ruling this week, clarifying the type of “romantic”, or dating, relationships that can qualify for the issuance of an Abuse Prevention Order, (“Restraining Order,”) otherwise known legally in Massachusetts as a “209A Order.” 209A refers to the originating statute, Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 209A.

The statute was enacted several years ago to provide protection from abuse for people who were, (among other definitions) related family members, married, or in a “substantive dating relationship.” As a Boston, Massachusetts domestic violence attorney, I can tell you that determining whether parties to such an Order are related or not, is usually fairly easy. But as to what “substantive dating relationship” means, the statute allows judges to consider a number of factors, including: 1) The length of the relationship; 2) The type of relationship; 3) the Frequency of interaction between the parties; and 4) Whether the relationship has been terminated by either person, and the length of time elapsed since the termination of the relationship.

All this worked for a while, but time and – in this case, technology – have a way of making the obvious obsolete. Hence, the need for the court’s ruling that I’m talking about today. With the rise of the internet, came internet dating: That vast expanse of cyber space where millions of lonely hearts surf the waves of the world wide web, looking for companionship, compatibility, and (not unexpectedly,) coitus (that’s sex, for the uninformed.) Let’s say that two people find each other on the internet and start an “online relationship”: They exchange intimate details about themselves, engage in amorous written exchanges, but then something goes wrong (as it often does in these situations.) If one person to that online “relationship” feels physically threatened by the other person, does that person qualify to be granted an Abuse Prevention Order (Restraining Order) under Chapter 209A? Or is that “pushing the legal envelope”?

The SJC ruled unanimously in this case that online communications such as text messaging, emails and Skype conversations can constitute a legitimate romantic relationship that would fall under the Massachusetts domestic violence statute, and thus, qualify for such a Restraining Order. Expanding the traditional definition of what type of relationship falls under this statute, the court ruled that the procedure for obtaining a Massachusetts Restraining Order “must be interpreted to protect all (persons) who are in a substantive dating relationship from abuse, regardless of whether the relationship was developed or conducted by the use of technology.” As a Massachusetts domestic violence lawyer, I have seen and defended a lot of these cases, very successfully, but I can assure my readers of one thing: With this expansion of the definition of “substantive dating relationship,” this ruling is going to make Massachusetts District Court judges even busier hearing these types of matters.

So, the bottom line from this Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling is this: If you ‘re in an online dating relationship, watch what you key in, or you may find yourself on the receiving end of an old-fashioned form of text messaging: The police at your door, handing you a very unpleasant message: A Restraining Order. While the issuance of these Orders is civil in nature, violating them is a criminal act, subjecting a defendant to serious criminal penalties. The Domestic Violence page on our web site can explain this in more detail.

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