Lawmaker to continue focus on domestic violence issues

      A lawmaker with decades of experience in law enforcement plans to file more legislation meant to help victims of domestic violence in ways he wished he could have during his career. 

Representative Lane Roberts (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Representative Lane Roberts (R-Joplin) said in his career, including as Joplin’s Police Chief, he was often frustrated at seeing how abusers used the court system to continue to intimidate and persecute victims.

      “What you’re looking at is … my efforts to remedy things that I’ve seen go wrong, things that I believe have been wrong, and to do it in a way that doesn’t undermine the intent of a fair and due process,” said Roberts. 

      “Over the years I found myself dealing with a number of different circumstances wherein I truly thought the right thing to do in protecting the victim, frankly, was not provided for in law.  So I wound up having to explain to victims why I couldn’t do the things that the victim and I both knew were in their best interest.  I watched abusers and, in some cases, their representatives twist, manipulate, take advantage of loopholes, doing things that I think the law provided for but not by intent,” said Roberts.  “It was a result of trying to ensure that we treated both sides of the discussion fairly.  Someone who’s been accused of a crime is innocent until they’re proven guilty, so we do need to make that acknowledgement.  We do need to make sure that they receive due process.  But, if the end result is the other side of that equation is abused or treated unfairly, that doesn’t make any sense.  There’s no balance there.”

      Jennifer Carter Dochler with the Missouri Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence says the issues the bill would address are ones seen time and time again in cases throughout Missouri.

      “Individuals who are abusive are very good at finding any loophole in the protections that we’ve helped establish.  This bill is absolutely trying to address multiple loopholes that have been identified that prevent the court from doing their best at protecting victims.”

      Roberts proposes specifying that when a person receives notice from a court that a hearing will be held on an order of protection against them, that serves as notification of any orders the court issues on the date of that hearing.  He said this is because often a person who is the subject of an order of protection will violate it, then say in their defense that they didn’t attend the hearing and therefore didn’t know the order had been put in place.  He said this amounts to pleading ignorance, and case law has supported this defense.

      “What I’m trying to do is remove the ambiguity.  You know you’ve been charged.  You’ve been made aware of the hearing.  I think the presumption needs to be the person did, in fact, get notified, not accept the presumption that they didn’t,” said Roberts.

      Carter Dochler said by the time an order of protection hearing is held, a victim has, “already asked the court for safety, and so let’s try to reduce a burden that we have continued to hear, over the years, creates safety issues.”

      Another provision would allow victims to testify in court via video conferencing.  Carter Dochler said in addition to victims having to make time to go to court over and over, each time having to incur costs for things like travel and childcare, there are many safety concerns for them when testifying in court.  Allowing them to provide testimony over video would be a simple fix.

      “Their abusive partner is going to know exactly when they’re going to be there, what time.  Although some courts try to put safety precautions in place … there’s still a safety risk for someone parking, walking into the courthouse, having to wait, how they’re going to leave,” said Carter Dochler.

      Roberts called the video conferencing language one of the pieces of the bill he’s the most committed to, because he’s seen that victims can often be reluctant to testify.

      “It’s difficult to describe, for those of us who’ve never experienced it, what it must be like to be the victim of repeated, and in some cases, vile abuse, to have to sit in the same room with [the person responsible] and have their lawyer pick you apart or have them staring at you with the intent of intimidating you,” said Roberts.  “How many people don’t show up to court because they don’t want to experience that?  How much fear does that create in the mind of somebody who maybe had it in mind that they were going to go forward and then it comes down to the reality of facing somebody in the same room?”

      The bill would also specify that victims and their witnesses don’t have to reveal home or workplace addresses when testifying in court, unless the court deems it necessary.

      “In many cases abusers and wrongdoers will continue to do things that are abusive and wrong for the purpose of advancing their interests in court, and that includes intimidating, threatening, or physically harming witnesses and victims,” said Roberts.  “What we’re really talking about here is giving them some level of comfort that people won’t know where to find them if they step up and do the right thing.”

      A provision the Coalition specifically wanted would clarify that a court can order payment of attorney fees incurred by a victim before, throughout, and after a proceeding.  Carter Dochler said because the current statute includes the word, “or,” an attorney successfully argued in one case that the abuser wouldn’t have to cover fees for all of those time periods.

      “This is another instance where grammar does matter,” said Carter Dochler.  “The intention has always been that somebody could request the respondent to cover reasonable court fees … we’re taking this opportunity to clarify what the intention was.”

      Roberts said based on the response he’s gotten from advocates, he already plans to change some of the language he’s prepared.  In particular, he expects to amend a provision that would bar prosecutors from offering plea bargains to defendants facing certain levels of domestic violence charges. 

      “Maybe we overshot on that,” said Roberts. 

      Other pieces of this bill would require anyone convicted of domestic violence to pay $1,000 to a shelter in the same city or county as the victim; and require that when they are ordered to take a class on domestic violence, they must pay for it.

      In the 2021 session Roberts proposed other domestic violence statute changes that became law in June.  These allowed for orders of protection to be extended for up to a lifetime; covered pets under orders of protection; and expanded the definition of “stalking” to include the use of technology such as GPS and social media, or the use of third parties. 

      Roberts said those pieces of legislation drew something of a “fan following” in Missouri, and for good reason.

      “Many people understand that domestic violence is a real part of everyday life for some people, and hopefully folks have begun to realize that those of us who’ve never been in those situations really cannot understand how horrible it is to live in constant fear, and in the home that’s supposed to be your haven and your safe place,” said Roberts.  “I’ve just seen it for the better part of five decades and the things that we’re talking about here are those kind of individual elements that I feel I can do to maybe remedy some of that.”

      Carter Dochler said the Coalition is grateful for Roberts’ focus on these issues.

      “Representative Roberts is doing an amazing job listening directly from constituents in his community about the barriers they’re experiencing.  He’s also taking his prior law enforcement career and barriers he experienced and he’s trying to address those things, and he’s to be commended,” said Carter Dochler.

      Roberts plans to file this legislation on or after December 1, when prefiling of bills for the 2022 session begins.

House votes to require veterans courts in all jurisdictions in Missouri

Every circuit court in the State of Missouri would have to have at least one veterans treatment court in its jurisdiction under a bill approved by the Missouri House.

Representative Dave Griffith (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Treatment courts utilize an intensive program of court supervision, drug or alcohol testing, and rehabilitation to help defendants overcome substance abuse, mental, emotional, or behavioral issues and keep them from re-offending.

Veterans treatment courts specifically focus on those who have served or currently serve in the military.  Many of their needs, including drug testing, utilize the Veterans Administration’s services.

Lawmakers said there is one circuit in the state that does not have a treatment court program.

House Bill 547 would require every circuit court in the state to establish a treatment court division.  For courts in which resources are not available for a veterans court, it would allow defendants who are veterans to have their cases transferred to any court in the circuit.

The bill is sponsored by Jefferson City representative Dave Griffith (R), who served in the Army as a Green Beret.

“When a soldier, a sailor, a marine, or an airman goes into battle, that experience changes who they are, and many of them come out of that experience and that situation different people.  They make decisions they very well would not have made prior to going on the battlefield.  Many turn to alcohol or drugs and because of those choices they can find themselves on the wrong side of the law,” said Griffith.  “The veterans treatment courts throughout the state will give these men and women an opportunity to clear their names, to get a clean record, and give them a second chance at life, but more importantly it will show them that we have not given up on them.”

Griffith said passing HB 547 would help mitigate the number of suicides among veterans in Missouri.

“#22 stands for the number of veterans committing suicide every day [nationwide].  This bill will show our veterans and military that we do care and we want to give them the second chance that they deserve,” said Griffith.

The bill would specify that veterans who had been in combat would be given preference by courts in determining whether to have their cases handled by a veterans court.  That provision was offered by Pleasant Hill Republican Mike Haffner, a retired Naval Officer and decorated combat veteran.

Representative Mike Haffner (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“Let’s face it.  Men were never meant to kill men,” said Haffner.  “Every individual that goes into combat is changed psychologically.  They are never the same again, and the part that’s hard about this is the assimilation when we come back home.  For those that haven’t been in combat they don’t understand, coming into a room like this is not the same.  We’re forever changed … some can cope and some cannot.”

Some lawmakers expressed concerns about having courts prioritize combat veterans ahead of non-combat veterans, but Haffner maintains that no one who could benefit from veterans courts will be turned away.

“Given the triage priorities that they list [in the bill] I cannot think of a situation where any of the circuit courts, especially here in the State of Missouri, where this is going to be an issue given the number of vets that we have and how few of them are combat vets,” said Haffner.

Griffith thanked his colleagues for supporting the bill and said it is a further effort to honor veterans.

“When I was separated from the service my first sergeant told me not to wear my uniform home, but to wear civilian clothes.  As many of us walked through airports either returning home from deployment or separating from the service, we were cursed at, we were spit on, we were called ‘baby killers,’ and the list goes on and on.  Today when I look on Facebook and I see posts of soldiers receiving standing ovations in airports when they are making their way to their planes it brings a tear to my eye.” said Griffith.  “This bill will further support our veterans and military by giving them another resource to help them get the support they need so very badly.”

HB 547 would give courts until August 28, 2021 to establish a treatment court division.  The House voted 149-3 to send the bill to the Senate.

Missouri legislature completes special session, sends two bills to Governor Parson

The Missouri legislature moved quickly to pass two bills that were the subject of a special session called by Governor Mike Parson (R).

Representative Kevin Austin (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Parson called lawmakers back into session to reexamine issues covered in two bills he vetoed.  One of those would establish statewide standards for treatment courts, such as drug and veteran courts; the other would allow high school computer science courses to count toward graduation requirements for math, science, or practical arts credits.  The House voted on Wednesday to send those bills to the Senate, and today the Senate approved those bills without making any changes to them.  That means they go to Parson for his consideration.

Representative Kevin Austin (R-Springfield) sponsored House Bill 2, which deals with treatment courts.  Such courts in Missouri provide a court-supervised, comprehensive treatment program as an alternative to jail time.  Lawmakers and prosecutors agree the program is not an easy out for a defendant.

Over the years courts have been established in numerous districts in the state but without universal guidelines for how to operate.  HB 2 seeks to provide those.

“It allows the expansion of treatment courts to counties that don’t have it but would like to have it.  It also allows for the coordinating commission to establish best practices based on scientific research that’s been done on the effectiveness of treatment courts and what works and what doesn’t,” said Austin.  “It allows for more data collection as well, it allows for technical assistance from [The Office of State Courts Administrator] to these courts.”

Austin said one of his favorite parts of the bill is a transfer clause, which will allow defendants who are candidates for treatment courts but are in a circuit that doesn’t have them, to be transferred to a circuit which does have them.

“That is not going to result in just dumping from one county to another of these defendants.  It has to be agreed to by both the transferring county and the receiving county.  It has to be agreed to by the prosecuting attorney as well as the defendant,” said Austin.

Austin said treatment courts save lives and improve the quality of lives, and not just the lives of the defendants that go through them.

“There’s people that interact with that person every day.  Maybe it’s their family, maybe it’s their neighbors, maybe it’s the merchants who they might otherwise be shoplifting from, it’s us as taxpayers.  It affects all of us in a very positive way.  It’s a way that we can restore dignity and return this person to a productive life,” said Austin.

House Bill 3 would let computer science courses count toward math, science, or practical arts credits needed for graduation.  Under the bill students could begin in middle school to be prepared for the opportunities they could have in the job market.  Its sponsor, Holts Summit Republican Travis Fitzwater, has been working on STEM legislation for years.

Representatives Jeanie Lauer and Travis Fitzwater (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“I’m thrilled it’s done,” Fitzwater said on Wednesday after the House passed his legislation.

“What we need is broadening opportunities and this is doing that for kids … and at the heart of it that’s what I’m trying to accomplish with this bill,” said Fitzwater.

Representative Jeanie Lauer (R-Blue Springs) chaired the House Committee on Workforce Development and worked with Representative Fitzwater on the computer science portion of HB 3.  She said it could help move Missouri forward in workforce development.

“We know that from site selectors that are looking for where to place businesses that is the top item that they’re looking for in criteria is what is the workforce pool, and in order for us to be competitive not only within our state but with other states we have to increase the talent that we have, and this is certainly a step toward that,” said Lauer.

Parson announced on August 30 his call for the special session and legislators worked quickly to pass new versions of these bills that addressed the concerns he cited with his vetoes, while spending as little time as possible on the special session.  The session’s costs were lessened because it coincided with the constitutionally-mandated veto session.