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Maine Bill Targets Domestic Violence Law Loophole
01/13/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Maine has taken major steps over the past two years to establish new protections for domestic violence victims. Among them: the tightening of bail rules for alleged abusers. But state Sen. Emily Cain, of Orono, says that over the past year, some unintended consequences have surfaced in connection with the enforcement of those new laws, and she's submitted legislation to correct them. A.J. Higgins has more.

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Among the provisions in Cain's bill is one that would make it a crime if an alleged abuser attempts to contact the victim immediately after being arrested on domestic violence charges, and before a bail hearing has been scheduled. As Cain told members of the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, the bill is a fix for this particular situation.

"Some of the changes in bail procedures inadvertently left offenders, who are now being detained in jail on the most serious domestic violence offenses and waiting for a judicial review of their bail, still able to call and terrorize their victims from the jail," Cain said.

And advocates for victims of abuse say it happens more than you might think. Julia Colpitts, of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, says the communications are frequently designed to persuade the victim to drop charges or apologize for their behavior.

"Victims now feel that, even though the offender is in jail, that they are still not safe from him or her," Colpitts said.

Colpitts says in domestic violence cases, it's the period of time that elapses right after the victim is separated from his or her abuser that is the most dangerous, and the new, tougher bail laws did not address whether an abuser - or an intermediary of an abuser - should be barred from contacting a victim immediately after arrest.

Colpitts says Cain's bill will close the loophole that can help allow some abusers to go free.

"What that means is that it has an extremely negative impact on their ability to make decisions on the future plans for their own lives, including whether or not to move forward with prosecution, whether to file protection from abuse orders, or whether to do other steps in that safety," Colpitts said. "We don't simply want to punish it - we want to stop that intimidating contact."

"I become more troubled as the testimony progresses on this issue," said Rep. Mark Dion. Dion, a Portland Democrat and former county sheriff, says the bill tries to address conduct as part of a bail violation before bail is even established. And he says he believes it may not be necessary.

"I really do, because we're trying to place a status on somebody that's not clear," Dion said. "If it's pre-bail, then we have laws to address that conduct."

But Maine Attorney General Janet Mills and other proponents say it's important that Maine law keep abusers from influencing a victim.

"But to allow the parties a certain cooling off period, the same thing a protection from abuse order is supposed to do as well, Mills said. "Allow the people to be separated for a while - there's been something pretty traumatic that went on. Whether it's ultimately prosecuted or goes to conviction or not, something traumatic in that family has happened."

Lawmakers plan a further review for the bill that would close a loophole allowing the disclosure of a victim's address to an accused offender.


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