Special Reports

County seeks to remedy lack of no-contact orders for abuse suspects

In Spokane, if you're arrested on suspicion of domestic violence, before you leave jail you're served with an order to stay away from the alleged victim.

That's true in Thurston and Snohomish counties, too. And in Wilkeson, South Prairie and Bonney Lake.

But it's not true in most of Pierce County. Hours after a Tacoma police officer was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of assaulting his wife, he posted bond and left jail - with no restraining order.

It's a flaw in the system, county officials acknowledged.

"That's putting the victim in quite a bit of peril," said Capt. Tom Strickland, the Tacoma Police Department's family violence coordinator. "The judges need to take a look at that."

Pierce County's District Court judges are working on it, presiding Judge James Heller said Thursday. Just two weeks ago Heller tried to create a new policy ordering that domestic violence suspects wouldn't be released from jail until after a hearing with a judge, who could issue a no-contact order.

Now, in Pierce County, domestic violence suspects can post a $1,000 bond, as police officer Marco Rahn did, and go home, never having seen a judge.

Heller's plan didn't work because it would have had to apply to all cases, including the ones on weekends. Pierce County doesn't have a full weekend court. Judges hold some hearings on weekends, but don't set bail and issue no-contact orders.

That means suspects booked Friday evenings would have to wait until Monday for a hearing with a judge. But state law says suspects must have a hearing or be allowed to post bail within 48 hours of being booked into jail.

Heller said he and Judge Judy Jasprica are looking at other possible solutions. He's studying whether he could issue a blanket mandate for no-contact orders for all people arrested on suspicion of domestic violence.

That could work, "unless we find that we're just prohibited from doing this," Heller said.

Seattle has a local law specifying that people accused of domestic violence, harassment or stalking can't post bail, and must stay in jail until a hearing with a judge. It works because Seattle has court six days a week, said Judith Shoshana, director of the Seattle City Attorney's Domestic Violence Unit.

Spokane County has a minimal, in-jail court session on Saturdays where judges set bail amounts and issue no-contact orders, said Spokane County deputy prosecutor John Love.

Bonney Lake, Wilkeson and South Prairie judges couldn't be reached Thursday. But officials from both courts (Wilkeson and South Prairie courts are combined) were contacted by The News Tribune last summer as the newspaper researched domestic violence laws. Officials from both courts said their judges issue no-contact orders to domestic violence suspects before they leave jail, even on the weekends.

Pierce County judges can issue a no-contact order at a suspect's first court appearance. But that usually doesn't happen for a day or more after the suspect's arrest. Rahn, for example, will have his first court appearance this afternoon - two days after he was released from jail.

Domestic violence experts have said that the hours after an arrest can be the most dangerous for victims, so that's when they need the most protection.

Heller agreed.

"With emotions running high, we're not sure what's going to happen next," he said. "In some cases that could be very bad. In the majority of cases, nothing's going to happen. But we recognize that this is a potential problem."

Under Pierce County's system, the only way a no-contact order would be issued before the suspect's first court appearance is if the victim asks for one. That appears to be contrary to law, Spokane's Love said.

State law reads, "The court shall determine the necessity of imposing a no-contact order," which means, Love said, "it is ultimately the court's job to determine if a no-contact order is necessary, not the victim."

Often victims ask the courts not to impose a no-contact order, Love said, and there are occasionally times that judges agree. But judges and lawyers say victims often deny they've been assaulted, even when there's evidence to show it has happened.

Domestic violence experts have said that one way victims protect themselves is by telling their abusers that they've denied the assault happened and that they didn't want a protection order. Some victims never would ask for a no-contact order because they fear it could make their abuser angrier, victim advocates have said.

That's why state law dictates that judges decide whether to issue no-contact orders, not victims, Love said.

No one in Pierce County knew of a time that a victim was killed when her abuser was released on bail. But Shoshana, of Seattle, said that's not the point.

"Domestic violence is not just about the people who are killed," she said. "It's important to think of all the women who are living in terror, day by day, not getting killed, living in this scary terroristic situation. It doesn't have to get to homicide."

Lisa Kremer: 253-597-8658