ANNAPOLIS – A divided Senate passed legislation Thursday that would enable alleged victims of sexual assault to seek protective court orders against acquaintances who allegedly attacked them.
The Senate’s 30-16 vote follows the House of Delegates approval last week of a similar bill to broaden the existing law that 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.
Differences in the Senate and House bills would need to be ironed out prior to final passage in both chambers before the General Assembly adjourns on April 6.
Supporters of the measure have called it necessary to protect sexual assault victims from being attacked by the same person, while opponents have decried the absence of due process protections – such as the right to an attorney — for those accused in civil court of having essentially committed a violent crime against an acquaintance or even one they regard as a stranger.
Dorothy Lennig, House of Ruth Maryland’s legal clinic director, hailed the Senate’s vote as “an excellent move forward” in protecting sexual assault victims.
“This clarifies that a victim of rape or other sexual offense is eligible for a protective order rather than a peace order,” said Lennig, who has lobbied for the bill’s enactment. “Different judges interpreted sexual relationship — which is required for a protective order – differently, at best causing confusion for victims and at worst causing no protection for victims.”
But Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who was president of the Democratic-led chamber for more than 30 years before relinquishing his seat this year, said he cannot support a measure so overbroad that it would allow civil protection orders against unrepresented individuals found by a mere preponderance of the evidence of having attempted to grope someone.
Miller also voiced concern that the record of a protective-order would remain on the Maryland Judiciary’s case search site, thus serving as a perpetual black mark against the perpetrator even after the order expires.
“It’s there for everyone to see and it stays there,” said Miller, D-Calvert, Charles and Prince George’s.
Miller, who has the title Senate President Emeritus, concluded by warning his colleagues to be sensitive to the legislation they pass.
“There are consequences to our actions here,” he said.
Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier, D-Baltimore County and an opponent of the bill, echoed Miller’s concern about the effect a protective order remaining on the Judiciary’s website would have on the professional and personal prospects of the unrepresented perpetrator.
“We’ll look at that guy and we’ll never look at him the same way again,” Klausmeier said.
Before taking its vote, the Senate rejected amendments from bill opponents that would have provided a right to counsel to those against whom a protective order is sought as well as preventing anything the accused said during the civil proceeding from being used against him or her in a subsequent criminal trial.
Sen. Shelly L. Hettleman praised what she called “really good” legislation that will enable women to get protection orders not only against assailants within their family and with whom they have had a relationship but against those they might meet in an elevator or at a work event.
“This bill is about believing women,” said Hettleman, D-Baltimore County. “This bill reflects today’s reality.”
Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, D-Montgomery, is chief sponsor of Senate Bill 210. Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary, D-Howard, is chief sponsor of House Bill 248, which the House passed 122-17.