A Court of Special Appeals ruling this week prohibiting direct contact between a domestic violence victim and her abuser highlights just how sharply divided women’s advocates remain on whether such intervention protects victims or deters them from reporting abuse.
The court upheld a judge’s decision prohibiting direct contact between a Maryland man who abused his wife and his spouse, even though she expressed her desire to reconcile with him.
“The opinion could stop other women from coming forward, because they would see that they don’t have the power to make decisions about the most intimate relationships in their lives,” said Leigh Goodmark, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and director of clinical education and the family law clinic.
Goodmark, who is also co-director of the Center on Applied Feminism, noted that the women whose wishes are being superseded have no standing in the criminal case.
In contrast, Dorothy J. Lennig, director of the legal clinic at the House of Ruth Maryland, said a judge has the right to take whatever steps necessary to protect victims of domestic violence.
“It seems like there was repeated violence in this case, and if the state doesn’t try to protect her, then the state is accountable and the system fails,” Lennig said.
L. Tracy Brown, executive director of the Women’s Law Center of Maryland Inc. summed up the consensus, however, that this “difficult” case, which came the same week that Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, raises many of the challenges inherent in domestic violence cases.
“It starkly demonstrates the need for a nuanced and sensitive approach that addresses all the competing priorities,” Brown said in an emailed statement.
The case involving Montgomery County resident James Lambert Jr. began when Lambert and his wife had an argument in September 2009 over the contents of a lockbox. According to the court’s opinion, Lambert pushed his wife and she fell over a railing and down the stairs, injuring her head and abdomen.
Lambert pleaded guilty to second-degree assault on March 24, 2010, and was sentenced on April 15, 2010. At the sentencing, the court said Lambert admitted to assaulting his wife in the past. In a letter to the court, the wife said she could not remember the details of the assault that took place in September. She said she did not fear her husband and hoped to go to counseling to resolve the problems in their marriage.
Circuit Court Judge Robert N. Dugan, however, was not persuaded. Dugan sentenced Lambert to three years of confinement, all suspended, and placed him on three years of supervised probation.
“[Dugan] noted the ongoing pattern of assaultive behavior between appellant and Mrs. Lambert,” the court said. “The judge further explained that he had been involved, as an attorney, in a case of repeated domestic violence that resulted in the victim’s death. Consequently, the judge imposed a special condition on appellant’s probation that he ‘have no contact’ with Mrs. Lambert during his probation period.”
The judge denied Lambert’s motion for reconsideration of his sentence in August 2010. Around this time, an anonymous tip led prosecutors to discover that the couple was talking on the telephone almost every day from May 17 through May 25, 2010. As a result, Lambert was charged with violating his probation.
Lambert moved to correct his sentence as illegal on Oct. 15, 2010, and filed an affidavit from his wife in which she said the no-contact provision was against her wishes and alleged that the provision “grievously prejudiced and compromised” her marital relationship. Dugan heard both the charge of violation of probation and his motion to correct his sentence on Nov. 22, 2010. The judge held Lambert in violation of probation, denied his motion to correct the sentence and reinstated his suspended sentence and probation, now scheduled to end on Nov. 22, 2013.
In upholding Dugan’s decision, the court said it could not say that the three-year prohibition on contact was excessive, “given the necessity to advance the state’s compelling interest in securing [the wife’s] safety from yet another incident of domestic violence at the hands of [the husband].”
The court said a judge is “vested with very broad discretion in sentencing criminal defendants, and is accorded this broad latitude to best accomplish the objectives of sentencing — punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation.” It also noted that, by perpetrating an act of domestic violence against his wife, Lambert “subordinated his rights to the state’s interests in punishment, deterrence, and rehabilitation.”
Judge Albert J. Matricciani Jr. wrote the opinion, which was joined by Judge Robert A. Zarnoch and Judge J. Frederick Sharer, a retired judge who was specially assigned to the case.
Assistant Attorney General Susannah Prucka represented the state in the case. In an emailed statement, Prucka said the sentence was justified by the facts of the case.
“As the Court of Special Appeals recognized, the state has a compelling interest in protecting the victims of domestic violence from further abuse, and the trial judge reasonably found the no-contact provision was necessary to achieve that goal,” she said.
Howard R. Cheris, an attorney at Armstrong & Cheris in Rockville who represented Lambert, said that, generally speaking, marriage is a “sacred relationship that is privileged and entitled to special consideration.”
“The absolute prohibition was wrong at the appellate level and at the trial level,” he said.
Cheris said that, while the case seems “ripe for further consideration,” his client does not have a plan to appeal to the Court of Appeals.
WHAT THE COURT HELD
James Lambert Jr. v. State of Maryland, September Term 2010, No. 2542 Argued Jan. 10, 2013. Decided Feb. 27, 2012. Opinion by Matricciani, J.
Is a probation condition prohibiting direct contact between appellant and his wife, the domestic violence victim, an illegal sentence where the victim has expressed her desire to reconcile with appellant?
The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the Circuit Court of Montgomery County’s ruling prohibiting the direct contact.
Howard R. Cheris, Armstrong & Cheris in Rockville, for appellant; Susannah Prucka, Office of the Attorney General, for appellee.
RecordFax #13-0228-00 (6 pages).