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California Passes Tough
New Domestic Violence Laws

By Marie De Santis, Women's Justice Center

In effect since January 1, 2000, a patchwork of new California domestic violence laws is already providing added help for domestic violence victims. The laws, however, still leave untouched some of the biggest obstacles victims face. Here are some highlights of the new laws and a quick look at what's left to be done.

  • Mandates arrest for restraining order violations (Penal Code 836). This law recognizes both the dangerousness of restraining order violations and the casual treatment these violations too often receive from police. California police are now mandated to arrest offenders who violate domestic violence restraining orders. The big gap in this legislation is that there is no equivalent obligation on district attorneys to prosecute these violations cases sent to them by police.

  • Expands coverage of domestic violence criminal law protections to include former spouses and cohabitants (Penal Code 243(e) and 273.5). Previously only married couples and co-parents of a child were covered under section 273.5 provisions.

  • Mandates that police remove all firearms at domestic violence scenes (SB 218).

  • Provides up to $2,000 housing relocation funds for domestic violence victims (AB606). Housing problems all too frequently keep many women from considering making an escape, especially if they have children. Now every domestic violence victim in California who reports to police is eligible for up to $2,000 to cover costs of housing relocation. Sonoma County Victim Assistance Program has already streamlined the process to make those funds available as early as one week following the woman's application.

  • The missing piece in this legislation is that these monies unfortunately do not cover the situation in which the offender has been arrested and the victim suddenly finds herself unable to cover rent on her existing housing. In this common situation the victim is forced to find new housing and relocate in order to be eligible for the funds.

  • Requires that police and prosecutors give victims one free copy of the domestic violence report within five days of being requested (Family Code 6228). The big advantage for victims in this legislation is that they will be able to determine if all the evidence available has actually been investigated and entered into the report. Some officials in Sonoma County are failing to comply with this legislation and are refusing to make the reports available to victims under any conditions.

  • Requires that Family Courts make a presumption that giving custody to a perpetrator of domestic violence is detrimental to the child (Family Code 3044).

  • Requires that the California Judicial Council make domestic violence forms available in languages other than English by July 1, 2001 (Code of Civil Procedure 185). This legislation, and more like it, is especially needed in Sonoma County where police and prosecutors frequently make inadequate efforts to obtain accurate statements from Spanish-speaking victims of rape, domestic violence, and child abuse.

  • Provides that an employer may not discharge, discriminate, or retaliate against an employee, domestic violence victim who takes time off work to "attempt to .....ensure the health, safety, or welfare of a domestic violence victim or his or her child" (Labor Code 230).

District Attorney Power Still Unfettered
A critical area for victims of rape, domestic violence, and child abuse that has been left ignored by legislators this year and in years past is the district attorney's absolute power to refuse to file charges no matter how solid the evidence. Even if a district attorney refuses to file charges on a whole crime category, there is no legal remedy for victims. This unrestricted prosecutorial discretion is particularly dangerous for women in Sonoma County where D.A. Mike Mullins' rate of conviction on domestic violence is one of the lowest in the state, and where he systematically under-charges cases of violence against women and children.

For example, at this writing, we at Women's Justice Center have a case of three days of spousal rape, sodomy and beatings which the district attorney has filed only as misdemeanor domestic violence. The detective in the case states there is ample evidence to file multiple felonies.

In another case of a woman beaten to the point of a fractured skull, the D. A. refused to file at all for five months until one day the perpetrator went out and committed another assault with a deadly weapon on another victim. In yet another case of spousal rape, the district attorney and Cloverdale Police have been fighting for six months over who should pay for translating key evidence. Sadly, those are just a few of many examples.

Not only are all women put in direct and great danger by the absence of any legislative check on the district attorney's denial of justice to women, but the D.A.'s refusal to file proper charges on these cases also suffocates and discourages police efforts. We need to work with our legislators to give them the fortitude to put restrictions on district attorney discretion now.

(For Spanish translation of this and other violence against women information, see the WJC website: www.justicewomen.com )

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© Marie De Santis
Women's Justice Center
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