Thursday, July 25, 2024

Sunshine Week: The complicated process of domestic violence protection orders

The New Hanover County Courthouse. (Port City Daily/file photo)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C — Cynthia Allen was found dead from a gunshot wound at a home on Bavarian Lane in New Hanover County on March 4. The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office later identified Darius Tyshaun Williams as a suspect.

At the time, Williams had several active warrants for his arrest, including stalking and violation of a domestic violence protection order (DVPO).

Court records show Allen filed for a DVPO against Williams in May 2023, claiming Williams had been abusing her and threatened to kill her. Allen, however, asked for the case to be dismissed a few days later.

Allen filed for another DVPO against Williams in February 2024, a few weeks before her death. In the complaint, Allen said Williams was threatening to kill her and her son and continued to call her, even though he was in jail on assault charges that were later dropped.

That DVPO was granted when a judge ruled Williams had committed acts of domestic violence against Williams. As a result, Williams was ordered to stay away from Allen’s home and to not assault, threaten, abuse, follow, or harass Allen.

In the court filing, Allen said she no longer wanted to be in a relationship with Williams.

Other court documents show Williams was criminally charged three times for assault dating back to 2022 and 2023. Allen was listed as the victim on all three charges, also voluntarily dropped by Allen or dismissed in court.

In light of Sunshine Week, a national observance focused on government transparency and the public’s right to know, three media organizations in the Cape Fear region partnered to look into DVPOs.

As the information received by WECT, WHQR, and Port City Daily indicates, hundreds of DVPOs are filed each year.

According to the North Carolina Judicial Branch website, anyone can file for a DVPO against a spouse, ex-spouse, current or former roommate, parent, grandparent, child, grandchild, or someone they have a child with. Protection orders against romantic partners, however, are categorized separately: as 50B orders.

The website says, however, that the defendant has to have intentionally assaulted the plaintiff, caused or attempted to cause harm to the plaintiff, threatened to seriously injure the plaintiff, or harassed the plaintiff by “committing at least two wrongful acts with no legitimate purpose.”

Once the plaintiff fills out the paperwork for a DVPO, the website says, a judge will hold an “ex parte hearing” that same day. 

If the plaintiff has sufficient evidence, the judge will grant a temporary protection order, until a hearing can be held with the plaintiff and defendant alike.

It is up to each county’s sheriff’s office to serve the defendants in a DVPO. New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office Spokesperson Jerry Brewer says it typically happens very quickly in New Hanover County. 

“The ex parte order has to be served within 10 days, it’s usually served that day, unless they’re out of town and we catch them once they come back,” Brewer said.

Court officials say the case can only move forward when the defendant has been served. 

“But at this point, the judge has only heard one side of it,” Brewer explains. “So the ex parte order is issued, they serve that and give them a court date for both people to come in front of the judge and hear both sides of the story. And then the judge will grant or deny a 50b protective order.”

50Bs can be filed against people whom the victim has a personal relationship with; 50Cs, or “no-contact orders” are available to those whose perpetrator does not qualify as a personal relationship.

According to the website, at a hearing, the judge will ask how the plaintiff and defendant want to proceed. If the parties cannot agree, the judge will hold a trial to decide whether to grant the DVPO. If the defendant does not show up for their court date, the judge can hear from the plaintiff and decide whether to grant a one-year DVPO.

“Both parties can present evidence, including witnesses and documents, about whether the defendant committed an act of domestic violence against the plaintiff,” the website says.

In New Hanover County, one in every three domestic violence protection orders was denied in 2023. Judge J.H. Corpening, who provides domestic violence training to magistrates across North Carolina, says there are a few reasons this could happen.

“If she doesn’t include information that she’s in immediate danger, it’s going to be denied. If she doesn’t say something about that, she’s going to be denied. And those plaintiffs almost never have lawyers representing them. And so there are some challenges inherent in the whole system. And then when it goes to court, can we layer on a whole nother set of issues for folks who are pursuing restraining orders? They’re in the same room with their abuser. They walked in the same front door. They’re nervous, they’ve experienced trauma, are they going to be able to communicate what they need to communicate? And the answer to that is maybe not.”

Around 85% of domestic violence victims are women, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Corpening says it’s not uncommon for the plaintiff to ask for the motion to be denied, and that may also be unrelated to whether abuse actually happened.

“It’s complicated. All kinds of reasons why she may stay, why she may go back, why she may want a dismissal. And none of those reasons may have to do with forgiveness. None of those reasons may have to do with, ‘I feel safe.’ They may have to do with some of the power and control that she’s experienced in her life. They may have to do with the incredible dependency that she feels where she doesn’t know where else in her life to turn,” Corpening said. “So it’s a much more complicated picture than dismissal equals forgiveness. In fact, in my experience, dismissal rarely equals forgiveness, dismissal equals something else is going on.”

The data that was made available to WECT, WHQR, and PCD did not clarify how many cases were dismissed because of a lack of evidence or the judge’s choice, and how many were dismissed by the request of the victim. However, there does seem to be significant regional variation. 

In Brunswick County, 61% of DVPO applications in 2023 were denied compared to 33% in New Hanover County. The data shows Brunswick County fields more orders with 4.3 filings per 1,000 people while New Hanover County had 3.67 filings per capita and Bladen County had 3.12 filings per capita.

However, Pender County data shows its county has the most filings at 5.96 per capita, though this number includes both 50B orders and 50C orders, while the other counties separated data between the two.

The contrast in data provided from the four counties demonstrates the differences in record-keeping between law enforcement agencies and the varying interpretations of public records law. 

PCD, WECT and WHQR requested “a list, record, digital spreadsheet, or database, including all domestic violence protection orders issued since January 1, 2023, and whether they have been served or attempted to be served, as well as the date the order was served.” 

New Hanover County did not provide a document at all, only the number of orders received, valid and denied/hearing scheduled. Brunswick and Pender counties provided a print-out of its database, showing issued dates, case numbers, total service attempts, and date completed. While Pender County’s document shows written notes about whether the perpetrator could be located, it did not include data on how many orders were dismissed or denied.

Columbus County Attorney Amanda Prince told WECT the county is not the custodian of court orders.

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