Watchdog group calls on judges to better protect domestic violence victims

WASHINGTON – He has guns. He pushed me through a window. He held me down and cut my hair off with a razor blade.

With that type of testimony in domestic violence cases, Court Watch, a group that monitors Maryland’s courts, says Montgomery County Circuit Court judges could to a better job of protecting the victims.

Most of the judges are “pleasant and respectful” in how they address victims of domestic violence, says Laurie Duker, co-founder of Court Watch Montgomery.

Volunteers with Court Watch Montgomery says a judge’s demeanor can be critical. If a petitioner, who may already fears her abuser, believes a judge doesn’t take her seriously, or if that judge is rude or dismissive at the initial hearing for a temporary protective order, the victim may not come back to get the final order.

Duker says while Montgomery County generally has a good track record of responding to domestic violence, she says some procedural issues need to be addressed to help ensure the safety of the person — usually a woman — petitioning for an order of protection.

Duker says more than half the time, judges in the circuit court don’t tell the respondent, the person accused of domestic violence, that he must surrender his firearms — not just those he owns, but all those in his possession — if an order of protection is issued.

Duker says the sheriff’s department, which carries out the orders of protection, does a good job of confiscating weapons.

“We think the judge should use the power of his bench to enforce that,” she says.

Montgomery County Sheriff Darren M. Popkin says most respondents to protection orders do comply with the law that requires them to surrender their firearms.

“At any given time, the Sheriff’s Department has about 200 seized firearms,” he says.

Popkin provided a photo of some of those 200 firearms surrendered. They include handguns, rifles and shotguns.

Duker also would like to see the judges order staggered exits from the courtroom after an order is issued. Doing so would mean a petitioner could leave while the respondent stays behind, a move that could prevent hallway or courthouse altercations.

Popkin thinks that’s a good idea.

“It would absolutely increase the safety. That direction from the bench, right there, is something the defendants will understand,” Popkin says.

The practice of staggered exits, he says, would take some planning for logistics and scheduling since court cases often run back-to-back with little down time between cases.

Popkin says domestic violence cases can be very volatile.

“We’ve had a number of cases that have gotten very emotional,” Popkin says.

When possible now, the courts try to stagger exits.

“Not only do we try to do the staggered exits, but we will have the deputies personally escort them out of the courthouse,” Popkin says, adding that deputies escort the petitioners to their cars.

But he points out, his deputies can’t unilaterally delay a defendant. The order to detain someone must come from a judge.

Montgomery County’s Administrative Judge for the Circuit Court John Debelius has been given a copy of the report, and has been able to read through it briefly.

Debelius says some of the recommendations are very good, and frankly, that he’d like his judges to meet with the members of Court Watch Montgomery. He’s invited the group to make a presentation to the circuit court judges, with the date to be deterimined.

WTOP’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report. Follow @KateRyanWTOP and @WTOP on Twitter.

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