Unlike other crime victims, a victim of domestic violence can ask a judge to dismiss the criminal complaint against the defendant, the Utah Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.
In a unanimous opinion that affirms trial court action, a three-judge panel said Utah law "clear-ly and unambiguously" gives judges the authority to dismiss domestic violence complaints at a victim's request when it's in the victim's best interest.However, a prosecutor and an advocate for victims of domestic violence expressed "serious concerns" about that interpretation Friday, saying it could open the door to the coercion of victims by criminal defendants.
"It causes me great concern," said Salt Lake City prosecutor Cheryl Luke. "Victims of domestic abuse are often still living in the same home as the perpetrator, and I'm afraid we're setting them up for intimidation."
Susan Sheehan, executive director of the Salt Lake YWCA, which operates a battered women's shelter, echoed that concern, saying people in abusive relationships are typically in no position to determine what's in their best in-ter-ests.
The issue came up in a case involving an elderly woman who was allegedly struck by her daughter during an altercation in 1996. The mother reported the incident to Salt Lake police, who found a large bruise on her face.
The city filed a battery charge against the daughter. At the daughter's arraignment, the mother, through an attorney, asked 3rd District Judge L.A. Dever to dismiss the complaint. She insisted the bruise had been caused by a fall, not her daughter as she initially alleged.
When Dever dismissed the complaint, city prosecutors asked for a reconsideration. But Dever said based upon the victim's statements, reaction to the court proceedings and other factors, "I believe that it would be to the benefit of her to dismiss it."
The city then appealed to the Utah Court of Appeals, again arguing that crime victims don't have standing to ask a judge to drop a criminal prosecution.
Writing for the appeals court, Judge Russell W. Bench said the Legislature enacted a law specifically relating to victim rights in domestic violence cases following passage of the victim rights amendment to the Utah Constitution in 1994.
The statute provides that a trial court may dismiss a charge involving domestic violence "at the request of the victim the court has reasonable cause to believe that the dismissal would benefit the victim."
"Here, in response to the victim's request, the trial court found that dismissal was in the victim's best interest," Bench wrote.
However, he added that Salt Lake City wasn't challenging the judge's determination on that point, but only whether a victim has standing to request dismissal.
According to the three judges, the Legislature clearly intended to give victims of domestic violence that right, and "where statutory language is plain and unambiguous, this court will not look beyond the same to divine legislative intent."
Luke, whose office filed the appeal, said, "To have a third party in a case - a witness - come in and essentially make a motion to have the case dismissed is unprecedented."
Moreover, domestic violence laws were drafted to relieve victims of the burden of prosecution, she said.
"In the past, the victim of domestic violence was required to sign a criminal complaint. We took that responsibility away from them because it exposed them to intimidation and coercion from the perpetrator," Luke explained.
The language cited by the appeals court was intended for prosecutors, not victims, according to Luke.
"Our interpretation is that the law says no one can have a case of domestic violence dismissed without showing that it's in the victim's best interest. That means, if the prosecution requests it, the judge puts us through one more hurdle," Luke said.
To give victims that option once again "sets them up for intimidation," Luke said. It's a particularly serious problem in domestic violence cases, which she called a "crime of control."
Sheehan agreed, saying abusive relationships involve cycles of violence followed by periods of reconciliation, or the so-called "honey-moon phase." Also, many victims of domestic violence go "into denial," she said.
"So, by the time they go to court, they might decide they don't want to do this to the person they love and try to have the charges dropped even when it's not in their best interest," she said.
She cited a recent case in which a woman was almost beaten to death by her husband but still is not inclined to see him prosecuted for the crime. "If it were up to her, the case would be dropped," Shee-han said.
Luke said her office may ask the Utah Supreme Court to review the appeals court ruling. The Legislature may also be asked to clarify the language, she added.