Protective orders are 'just paper' that won't stop violence

LAS VEGAS - An order of protection didn't shield Maria Ortiz from escalating domestic violence, or stop the bullet that ended her life.

Police say Ortiz was honking her car horn and screaming for help from officers in a nearby squad car when her estranged husband grabbed her by the hair, pulled her toward him and shot her in the head while the couple's 11-year-old daughter looked on.

When she was slain Sept. 26, Clark County district attorney's officials say Maria Ortiz had a temporary restraining order against her husband, Carlos Ortiz.

Domestic violence advocates say that's one of the problems with protective orders - issued by a judge to dissuade accused batterers from striking again.

Some violent offenders ignore them. Others can be enraged into more severe violence.

"It does the victim no good if the person has no fear of authority or of police," said Amber Batchelor, special programs director for Safe Nest, a shelter for battered women in Las Vegas. "Then it's just a piece of paper."

Nevada ranked fourth in the nation in females slain by men in 2002, trailing only Alaska, Louisiana and New Mexico, according to a study by the nonprofit Washington-based Violence Policy Center.

The orders generally require the offender to stay at least 100 yards away from the person being protected.

Clark County Family Court Commissioner Patricia Doninger said the orders work best when the victim is prepared to leave the abuser.

"A lot of times, they file for a protective order and then don't show up at the hearing," Doninger said. "That's the circle of violence. A victim has to be ready to stop being intimidated."

There were 8,321 requests last year in Clark County for domestic orders of protection, including 6,241 filed in person at Family Court and 2,080 by telephone from a 24-hour hot line maintained by Safe Nest.

Although most victims of domestic violence are women, about 20 percent of those who file for protective orders are men seeking protection from women or other men.

Once protective orders are approved, authorities say they can be hard to serve.

Some come with inaccurate home or work addresses for those being served, said Chief Paul Martin, head of the Las Vegas police civil process section.

Officers have limited authority to serve protection orders, and some abusers change jobs or addresses to dodge authorities.

A disparity in punishment for those who violate protection orders perplexes advocates.

Strangers who violate protective orders and are convicted of stalking or harassment can face gross misdemeanors, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine, or a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Batterers who violate domestic-related protective orders face misdemeanors, which carry penalties of no more than six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

"The penalty should be based on the behavior, not the relationship," said Julie Proctor, executive director of Safe House, another southern Nevada shelter for battered women. "They should all be felonies, and I think (offenders) should be put in jail."

Doninger, the court commissioner, said penalties for violating domestic protective orders should be stronger.

"It's more of a volatile situation when family members are involved because they are emotionally charged," she said. "If anything, the penalties should be similar to that for stranger stalking."

Advocates also want to lengthen the time that Family Court temporary protective orders remain in effect in Nevada to three years, the same as California.

Currently, a commissioner can issue an emergency protective order of seven to 10 days against an abuser arrested for domestic violence, a temporary extension of up to 45 days, and longer extensions of up to a year.

Nevada requires another instance of domestic violence before the victim can seek more protection.

Advocates complain that abusers who can afford good attorneys can manipulate the legal system. They argue that judges need better training to understand the dynamics of domestic violence.

John McGroarty, a state District Court judge since 1983 who helped create the Las Vegas-area Family Court, said he favors training but has reservations about cost and time taken by judges away from the bench.

Domestic violence with substantial bodily harm is a felony in Nevada. If domestic battery is committed but there are no broken bones or other injuries that require hospitalization, the charge is a misdemeanor.

It takes a third conviction for domestic battery without substantial bodily harm within a seven-year period to rise to a felony.

State law lets prosecutors drop misdemeanor battery charges if an offender and victim reach a civil compromise such as a monetary payment or apology.

Frank Sullivan, a former Family Court domestic violence commissioner who serves as a juvenile hearing master, said civil compromises make it easier for abusers to continue violent behavior.

"I would like to see the Nevada Legislature say no more civil compromises for domestic violence," Sullivan, president of the Southern Nevada Domestic Violence Task Force, said. "Civil compromises send the wrong message to a batterer."

Alexandra Chrysanthis, chief Clark County deputy district attorney in the domestic violence unit, said she also believes civil compromises should be stricken from Nevada law.

"My hands are tied," Chrysanthis said. "Why would we put victims in that position?"

Domestic violence was not a serious crime in Nevada until the 1980s. Since then, Nevada and other states have passed laws to protect victims and prosecute offenders.

But Batchelor, at Safe Nest, cited cases "where a victim has done everything by the letters to protect herself, and she ends up dead anyway."

"It's one of those things where there is no nice, clean answer," Batchelor said.

She said she'd like to see Clark County adopt "victimless prosecution" to let domestic violence cases move forward without the victim signing a complaint. The idea is to remove a violent trigger for an abuser who blames an accuser.

Cases are prosecuted using other witnesses, photographs and evidence.

Chrysanthis said many domestic battery victims balk at taking a case to trial or don't show up because they don't want their assailants to go to jail.

"It's the most frustrating aspect of my job," she said. "I can't run a case without a victim."


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