House Bill 3958, sponsored by Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio), will set up a domestic violence offender registry similar to the Texas Sex Offender Registry. Castro is correct to identify domestic violence as an important issue; however, there are serious problems with the way law enforcement and the judicial system handle domestic violence. These problems will cause many innocent men to be ensnared by this bill.
HB 3958 would set up a central database containing information on anyone who has been convicted or “received a grant of deferred adjudication” for a family violence offense on three occasions. The three conviction requirement is defensible, but the inclusion of deferred adjudications — which are analogous to plea bargains — is a major problem.
Like many states, Texas has adopted aggressive arrest procedures on domestic violence calls. While politically popular, many of the architects of these types of policies are increasingly concerned that they have led to widespread abuses. For example, Greg Schmidt, who created the Seattle Police Department’s domestic violence investigation unit in 1994, says that police officers are often encouraged to make arrests “in petty incidents, often where the abuse is mutual or it is unclear who the aggressor was.” Moreover, Schmidt has concluded that the policies and the political climate that surround them pressures officers to see men and only men as the offenders, even though research shows that women comprise a significant minority of those who commit domestic violence.
Former Dallas Police Department patrol officer Paul Stuckle, now a criminal defense attorney in Plano, believes that these policies often lead Texas police to make arrests based only on the alleged victim’s statements, and that officers often fail to complete a fair and thorough investigation.
The highly publicized case of former major league baseball player Scott Erickson has come to symbolize the problems with aggressive domestic violence arrest policies. Erickson called the police during an altercation with his girlfriend in July of 2002. According to The Associated Press, the Baltimore, Maryland police concluded that Erickson’s girlfriend Lisa Ortiz: initiated the fight by hurling objects; decided to come back twice after Erickson carried her out of the apartment; repeatedly kicked the apartment door; caused Erickson two minor injuries, one of them to his pitching arm; and herself suffered no injuries. Nonetheless, the police arrested Erickson. Afterwards Ortiz publicly stated that Erickson, who did not pursue her either time after carrying her out, “has never been physically abusive toward me.”
Erickson and his legal team did manage to get the charges dropped, but most men aren’t so fortunate. Many Texas District Attorneys follow “No Drop” policies in domestic violence cases, pursuing marginal cases which ordinarily would be dropped for lack of evidence. Without a strong criminal case, prosecutors often try to intimidate defendants into accepting seemingly harmless deferred adjudications. Most men in these situations lack the money and resources to wage a long legal battle, and accept deferred adjudications, often without realizing that they cannot be expunged.
Inclusion on the domestic violence offender registry will be ruinous to some men’s careers and reputations. The list will contain the person’s name, photograph, date of birth, last known address, physical description and their offenses. Many of the men who will be placed on the registry are noncustodial fathers with child support obligations, and the registry will make it much more difficult for them to get and keep jobs.
In addition, the list would be applied retroactively. Men who agreed to deferred adjudications in previous years did so without knowing that their decision not to fight their case in criminal court would place them on a domestic violence offender registry for life.
The bill’s requirement of three cases does provide a safeguard of sorts. Yet once the registry is created, it is very possible that future legislation will lower the requirements for inclusion to two or even one case. It is also possible that men with domestic violence restraining orders will be placed on the list, even though these restraining orders are granted to almost all who apply, with little judicial review. The bill may also be amended to require the state to pass out flyers with all the man’s information on it to every household within a mile of his house, just as is done with the Texas Sex Offender Registry.
Many deferred adjudications are not fair findings of wrongdoing, and should not be treated as such. HB 3958 will harm many innocent men.
- Austin American-Statesman4/11/07