Shield or Sword: Civil Protection Orders in the District of Columbia

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Shield or Sword: Civil Protection Orders in the District of Columbia

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If a judge finds that there is “good cause,” to believe that a person (the respondent) has committed or threatened to commit a crime against another (the petitioner), a judge may issue a Civil Protection Order against that person. D.C. Code 16-1005(c) Most often issued in the context of a domestic violence situation, a Protection Order can be a powerful tool to protect a victim of domestic violence. But its power can also be used in ways not intended by the court, as a sword against a spouse or boyfriend, rather than a shield.

A Civil Protection Order is issued by a DC judge only after a hearing, during which the petitioner must present enough evidence to justify the need for the order. At this hearing, the target of the Civil Protection order can offer evidence to rebut the need for the order. If the order is granted, the issuing judge determines what conditions should be applied. These conditions may simply be that the respondent may not harass, assault, threaten, or stalk the requesting party. Or the court may order that the respondent may not have any contact, whatsoever, with the petitioner, usually for a period of one year. Other conditions may include requiring the respondent to seek mental health or substance abuse treatment, take a domestic violence class, or whatever other burdensome requirement the judge believes is appropriate. In addition, if a Civil Protection Order is issued against you, it is likely that you will be unable to own or keep firearms for the period of the order.

Although a Civil Protection Order is a civil, rather than a criminal remedy, any violation of the order is a criminal offense that carries serious criminal penalties, including up to 180 days in jail. Make no mistake, judges take these orders very seriously, and it is the rare violator who avoids a stay at the DC Central Detention Center. While most respondents understand what they aren’t allowed to do under the order, what they often don’t understand is that the order is a one-way street. This means that, although you are forbidden to contact the party who requested the order, this does not mean that they are under the same restrictions. And this can cause serious problems. Because, although a DC Civil Protection Order is meant to protect the recipient of the order, sometimes that person uses the order aggressively, leading to even more trouble for the respondent. One client complained to me that his ex-wife kept showing up at his job, with her new boyfriend in tow. The only purpose for the visits was to taunt him into violating the Civil Protection Order she had against him. Another client kept getting taunting texts and phone calls from his ex-girlfriend, despite a no-contact order that she requested.

What prevents a petitioner from abusing the Protection Order he or she is granted? Unfortunately, not much. As long as the petitioners aren’t breaking any laws, they can continue to reach out to those under Protection Orders. My advice to people in this situation is as follows: if she calls, hang up; if she texts, don’t respond; if she knocks, don’t answer, and if you see her on the street, turn and walk the other way. Sounds easy, right? Perhaps, but the DC jail is full of people who couldn’t help themselves. But what if your ex-girlfriend or boyfriend gets a Civil Protection Order against you, but then regrets it, and wants to “get back together?” While it may be tempting to ignore the order when things are good, keep in mind that when things get bad again (and in my experience they always do), there is nothing stopping the petitioner from cashing in that Protection Order. Break-ups are hard, but jail mattresses are harder.

Your best protection against a Civil Protection Order is avoiding one in the first place. Because it is not a criminal matter, many people walk into their Protection Order hearings without a lawyer, and walk out shaking their heads.

An experienced Washington, D.C. domestic violence attorney can help defend you against Civil Protection Orders and against violations of those orders. For a free consultation, contact Jay Mykytiuk at JPMLegal.