Protective orders — writing about domestic violence

Originally posted on Lee Lofland’s terrific blog for writers about law enforcement,  The Graveyard Shift , on Oct 26, 2011.

A recent double homicide in Helena, Montana spotlights protective orders. Joe Gable and Michelle Coller married in 1986. According to news accounts in the Helena Independent Record, they separated two years ago, and Michelle moved out of state. In September, she returned to Montana unexpectedly, and began what Joe viewed as harassment and intimidation. In one incident, she drove to his apartment, blocked his car with hers, entered, threw his laptop down the stairs, and refused to leave–all while he was changing the locks to keep her from getting in.

Joe requested a temporary order of protection. The judge concluded that his evidence did not establish personal danger or threat, and denied the request. Three weeks later, Joe filed for divorce. Two days later, Michelle entered his apartment at 6:00 a.m., and shot and killed him and another woman. She’s been charged with two counts of deliberate homicide.

I can only imagine how the judge feels. The situation proved more volatile–and violent–than the evidence before her had indicated. News accounts suggest she was not informed of the couple’s troubled history, including previous calls to police, or recent concerns by friends about Michelle’s mental health.

So what’s the process for getting a protective order–also called a restraining order or “no contact” order? State laws vary, so writers, check your story state. (Start by Googling “protective order” and the state name.) Most court systems provide forms, requiring some or all of the following information:

Relationship between applicant and respondent, e.g., married, divorced, separated, dating, parents of a minor child.

Recent abuse, including when and where the incident occurred, who was present, any injuries, whether a gun or other weapon was threatened or used, and whether police were called.

Past abuse, with the same information.

Does respondent have a gun?

Past or pending court cases between the parties.

Protection sought. This may be as simple as checking boxes. Examples:

No threats or acts of violence against applicant and other persons specified.

No calls, emails, or other contact or communication with applicant and specified family members, victims or witnesses.

Not take specified children out of the state or county.

Maintain a specified distance from applicant or other persons protected in specific locations, e.g., home, work, vehicle, school, or day care.

Not possess firearms.

Not take, sell, damage, or dispose of specified property.

Possession or use of specified property, e.g., a residence, vehicle, or other personal property, regardless of ownership.

Is law enforcement help requested to obtain the property?

The court may also order anger management counseling, or alcohol or chemical dependency counseling or treatment.

Any other protection applicant thinks necessary. The judge can impose any conditions she thinks appropriate. Most courts use pre-printed orders with blanks for additions.

Applicant should bring any witnesses to the hearing, along with any threatening letters, texts, voice mail messages, and so on.

Applicant can request that her address be kept confidential. Obviously, that wouldn’t have helped Joe Gable, unless he had moved.

Orders are usually temporary, e.g., 20 days. The parties are required to come to court for a hearing on whether an order should be renewed, modified, or made permanent.

State law may also allow use of protective orders to grant temporary custody of minor children, establish visitation, and order temporary support payments.

Sample forms from Montana , Texas, and Maryland. If Joe Gable had shown sufficient danger or threat, would Michelle have honored the protective order? No way of knowing. Orders are often violated, sometimes with tragic consequences. But they are an important tool in decreasing violence, and protecting us all.

Followup: An editorial in the Missoulian newspaper — prompted by the Helena shootings  — cites statistics from the National Institute of Justice showing that protective orders do discourage some types of abusers, that women who obtain protective orders are “less likely to be physically abused than women without them,” and in one Texas study, a significant decrease in physical abuse over a 2 year period, from 68 to 23 percent, if the victims maintained the orders. That last statistic highlights another problem in the complicated relationships between victims and abusers: victims often continue or initiate contact themselves, despite having obtained protective orders. The reasons are complicated and far beyond the scope of this post, but can make a thorny situation even more difficult.

Another benefit of protective orders is that they make it easier for LEO to follow up on reports of abuse, and for prosecutors to successfully prosecute a violator, which can be easier than sorting out what happened in the incidents that led to the order.

Do protective orders always work? No. Are they critical tools? Yes. I urge anyone at risk to seek an order, break off all contact, report violations, and obtain any other assistance needed to keep themselves and their children safe.

In mid December, the Missoulian reported that Michelle Gable would plead justifiable use of force in her April 2012 trial.

Nothing on this site is intended as legal advice, and should not be relied on in handling “real world” legal problems. All information provided is intended solely for use by writers devising fictional plots.

Keep in mind that because laws and procedures vary widely and sometimes change, you should check the status of any law that affects key elements of your story.


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