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Senate gives initial OK to bill extending protective orders to acquaintances

Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher I. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, D-Montgomery. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

ANNAPOLIS – The Senate gave preliminary approval Friday to a bill that would enable alleged victims of sexual assault to seek protective court orders against acquaintances who allegedly attacked them.

The measure would broaden existing law, which permits alleged victims to seek protection orders in district court against family members or romantic partners. Current law also enables disabled or elderly adults to seek protective orders.

The Senate is expected to vote next week on passage of the law-expanding measure.

The Senate’s preliminary voice vote on Senate Bill 210 followed its rejection of amendments to provide a right to state-appointed counsel for indigent acquaintances at the civil protective order hearings and to bar testimony at the hearings from being used at a subsequent criminal trial for sexual assault.

The amendments’ sponsors called them necessary to ensure the due-process rights of those accused in the protection hearings of the serious offense of sexual assault.

The right to counsel, which applies only to criminal proceedings, is just as important in a protective order hearing, said Sen. Justin Ready, R-Carroll, who introduced that amendment.

People held subject to a protective order, while not facing incarceration, could lose their jobs or be compelled to change residences if they live too close to their victim, he added.

“It’s not a criminal trial,” Ready said of a protective order hearing, “but it might as well be.”

In opposition to the amendment, Sen. William C. “Will” Smith Jr. said he supports the concept of indigent individuals’ being provided legal representation when they are sued by a landlord or other creditor.

However, the cost to the state of providing counsel at protective order hearings would be “prohibitive,” said Smith, D-Montgomery and chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

“It’s just fiscally impossible,” he said.

The Senate rejected Ready’s amendment by a vote of 27-17.

Sen. Michael J. Hough, R-Frederick and Carroll, said his proposal to shield from potential prosecutors the testimony that acquaintances give in defending themselves against a protective order is necessary, allowing people to speak freely in the civil proceeding without fear that their words will be used against them in a criminal trial.

In support of Hough’s amendment, Sen. Robert Cassilly, R-Harford, said the testimonial safeguard would be particularly important for the accused because they would not be represented by counsel at the protective order hearing and therefore may say something that would be incriminating in a subsequent criminal trial.

But Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, the bill’s chief sponsor, said protective order proceedings are civil matters that seek to safeguard victims from future harm and are quite apart from criminal trials.

“This is simply a civil matter,” said Waldstreicher, D-Montgomery and vice chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

The Senate defeated Hough’s amendment on a 28-16 vote.

The House of Delegates on Thursday passed legislation similar to Waldstreicher’s on a 122-17 vote. Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary, D-Howard, is the chief sponsor of House Bill 248.

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