Virginia protective orders up since law expansion

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Since Virginia expanded its law to allow more people to seek protective orders against those they say are threatening them, the number of such orders has increased dramatically.

General district courts granted 2,015 full protective orders and 4,941 emergency protective orders in the first six months after the law took effect July 1. That's compared to 141 full orders and 272 emergency orders during the same period in 2010, according to figures compiled by the Virginia Supreme Court.

The old law allowed victims to obtain only two types of protection orders. One is for those who are being stalked or threatened or who have suffered serious injuries, and the order in most cases is accompanied by an underlying criminal charge against the suspect.

The other is for victims of family abuse, which can be obtained if the victim has been abused by a current or former spouse, a relative, the other parent of the victim's child, or anyone the victim has lived with in the past 12 months. Those can be obtained only through juvenile and domestic relations district courts.

In expanding the law, Virginia legislators approved sweeping changes that focused not just on dating relationships, but on any violent, forceful or threatening behavior that results in injury or places one at reasonable risk of death, sexual assault or injury. That has opened up the protective-order process to just about anyone who alleges abuse or threats of violence.

Supporters of the legislation and advocates for victims of domestic violence said it appears the new law is having a positive effect, but some court clerks and others complain it is straining an already-overburdened system and some of the requests are frivolous, vindictive or calculated to gain an advantage.

Gena M. Boyle, domestic-violence advocacy counselor for the Richmond-based Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, said the new law has been a lifeline to people in abusive relationships who fell between the cracks under the old law.

"We have 57 local programs across the state and we've gotten a lot of anecdotal stories about people who they've been working with for years, who were not eligible for (protection) prior to the new law, who have now received that protection," Boyle said. "It's been a very valuable tool in addressing those acts of violence and threats."

But the changes have flooded Virginia's general district court system with requests, which authorities fear will only continue to climb as more Virginians become aware of them.

The law has added layers of paperwork for the clerk's office staff and increased judges' caseloads, "and it seems to me that a lot of them are vindictive (requests)," said Bonnie Pridemore, clerk of Richmond General District Court-Manchester. "I've had a lot of them tell me that they're not afraid of" the person for whom they are seeking protection. Instead, it's "I just don't want them to be near me."

In a Fairfax case, a man who hired a contractor to do some work filed a protective order against the contractor after refusing to pay him. The contractor wanted to be paid, "and the guy didn't want to pay him and wanted him to quit calling him," said Fairfax County General District Court Clerk Nancy Lake.

"There are a lot of cases where people seem somewhat threatened, but it has to be more than a scary situation," Lake explained. "What you get a lot . is just people displaying terribly bad behavior, but they are not making a direct threat."

Lake wrote in the most recent newsletter of the Association of Clerks of the District Courts of Virginia that all general district courts have found they have handled more protective-order requests per month than the entire 12 months before the law went into effect. The workload in Fairfax has forced Lake to assign a clerk to handle protective orders full time.