A new bill aims to better protect domestic violence victims by adding a petty misdemeanor offense option for perpetrators and making it easier for the victims to obtain protective orders.
Under current law, an alleged offender may be charged with a misdemeanor or felony. Advocates hope that Senate Bill 2343 would increase conviction rates by creating a lesser option for prosecutors of a petty misdemeanor charge. People accused of petty misdemeanors are not entitled to a jury trial and can be kept in jail for no more than 30 days.
It can sometimes be hard to gain domestic violence convictions in jury trials, said Domestic Violence Action Center CEO Nanci Kreidman. So for some cases, it’s better to convict defendants of lesser charges than to allow them to walk free with acquittals on more serious ones, she said.
The bill received its first hearing Friday before the Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental, and Military Affairs hearing, but a vote is not planned until Tuesday. The Women’s Legislative Caucus introduced it as part of its package of measures for this session.
The Hawaii Office of the Public Defender opposes the measure. It submitted written testimony calling it a “veiled attempt to deny a defendant his or her constitutional right to a jury trial.”
Almost all written and oral testimony was in support of the bill.
“It’s a fantastic way forward,” Kreidman said. “It’s been a long time that the system hasn’t really worked well.”
The Kauai and Maui prosecuting attorneys supported the bill, while Honolulu’s prosecuting attorney offered comments and supported its intent in written testimony. The Honolulu Police Department also supported SB 2343, but offered amendments.
The Domestic Violence Action Center and the Hawaii State Coalition Against Domestic Violence offered to work with lawmakers to refine the bill’s language.
The state Judiciary also supported the bill’s intent, but testified that it would need additional resources for Family Court, if it passed. Family Court hears cases involving children, domestic relations and violence, and adult abuse. It already hears harassment cases involving current relationships, but SB 2343 would place harassment cases involving people from former relationships under the jurisdiction of Family Court, too.
Broadening DV Definitions
SB 2343 would also automate the conversion of no-contact and stay-away orders obtained during trial to temporary restraining orders. The bill would only require the abuser to be informed of the details in court.
The bill also adds burglary, trespassing and other crimes to the legal definition of domestic violence, so long as the offense was committed by a family or household member.
Mei Wong, 22, of Oahu testified in favor of the bill at Thursday’s hearing, saying she was a victim of domestic violence when she was 18.
She said police officers told her they couldn’t do anything to stop her abuser from stalking her because he was on a public street. Domestic violence isn’t just physical — it includes stalking and intimidation too, she said.
Wong says she was discouraged by dismissive interactions with police and the lengthy court process. She never sought criminal charges against her alleged abuser.
“I just felt really empowered by this bill because I felt … that other survivors will be brought to justice through the bill, even though I wasn’t personally,” she said.
Thirty-six percent of Hawaii women and 22 percent of Hawaii men will experience rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to a 2010 report from the federal Center for Injury Protection and Control.
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