Protective injunctions or restraining orders help victims of domestic violence and abuse feel protected. But, lawmakers and experts in the field say Florida’s injunction laws have some dangerous gaps in protection.
Here at the Leon County Courthouse a metal detector, humming x-ray machine and guards armed with metal-detecting wands greet hundreds of people each day as they cross the court’s threshold. A courthouse is probably one of the safest places to be but, some people are hoping that sense of security doesn’t cease once they exit the building. Laura McKinnon is a courthouse coordinator for Refuge House, an organization that runs a network of domestic violence shelters across eight Big Bend counties. She says more than 1000 people visit her office for help every year.
“Anybody who comes to the courthouse who is experiencing violence, or stalking or some kind of sexual assault can come to our office and ask for relief through the courts.”
McKinnon helps victims file for protective injunctions, which prevent abusers or harassers from contacting or visiting them again, under threat of arrest and prosecution. But that first injunction is a temporary one and the time between when it’s filed and when a final injunction is issued can sometimes result in a gap of protection. A gap Refuge House’s Director, Meg Baldwin, says is perilous.
“That’s a very dangerous situation for a victim to be in and this bill helps knit those two time periods together so there’s no gap between the temporary injunction period and the issuance of the permanent injunction. It’s a good thing,” Baldwin declares.
That bill is one filed by Vero Beach Republican Representative Debbie Mayfield. She says law enforcement officials came to her concerned by loopholes in the state’s protective injunction process.
“The sheriff in Brevard County as well as well as the sheriff in Indian River county, where I live, had indicated that there was an issue with the temporary injunction,” Mayfield explains.
Law enforcement officials told Mayfield that once respondents were aware of the temporary injunction, some would flee after the issuance of the permanent one, making it impossible to serve said individual and causing a lapse in protection for the victim. A temporary injunction’s time frame is capped at 15 days. After that, a judge has to rule on whether to issue a permanent one. Often, the judge eventually issues a final injunction, but by the time the judge’s gavel is dropped, some respondents have already gone underground. Refuge House’s Baldwin says the bill helps clarify what she says was the intent of Florida’s protective injunction laws all along.
“When a person has received a temporary injunction that has a fixed period of time in which it’s in effect and then files for a permanent injunction that the law probably intended to pick up right at the end of the term of the temporary injunction so that the protection of the victim would really be seamless and continuous,” Baldwin asserts.
That’s not the only gap the bill seeks to fix though. Another provision of the law would also clarify what an injunction means for a respondent’s right to carry a firearm. Under current law, when an injunction is placed on a person, they have to turn over any registered weapons they have. But because the law doesn’t mention borrowed or shared firearms, some respondents caught with one could escape prosecution. Baldwin says she’s seen it happen before.
“Under prior law it might be a defense , to a charge that he’s violated the injunction by having those firearms, for him to say ‘no, no, no that’s not my firearm that was subject to relinquishment initially, that’s my cousin’s rifle and he’s just lent it to me’ so this bill just kind of bridges that gap,” Baldwin recalls.
She says fixing those gaps would go a long way toward help victims feel safer after petitioning for protection. The Senate version of Mayfield’s bill, sponsored by Inverness Republican Senator Charlie Dean, takes the injunction reform a step further by also requiring private investigators not to release a person’s personal information if they’ve filed for protection. Mayfield says she expects both bills to match up before they hit the floor.