- Associated Press - Thursday, March 6, 2014

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - A bill that would make it easier for abuse victims to obtain protective orders cleared the House of Delegates with a unanimous vote on Thursday.

In a news conference after the vote, Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said legislators want to balance victims’ rights with due process. But Maryland is the only state where victims must provide clear and convincing evidence of abuse to get long-term protective orders, Dumais said.

This bill would lower the burden of proof to a preponderance of the evidence, meaning it’s more likely than not that a protective order is warranted.

It is the same standard followed in medical malpractice, child custody and personal injury cases, Dumais said.

Gov. Martin O'Malley’s administration requested this bill.

The measure has been debated off-and-on for a number of years. The General Assembly has not taken up a similar bill since 2010, which was an election year. Now, however, the measure has not met any serious resistance in the House.

Dumais said it just needed a push from the judicial committees.

Judges have told committee members informally that they prefer the current standard, Dumais said. Some say they know domestic violence when they see it.

Further, issuing a protective order often means forcing an accused husband or boyfriend out of his home. It can also raise new legal issues, such as child custody and insurance matters.

Last year, Maryland judges denied 1,700 petitions for lack of evidence, said Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

But Frosh said a dinner conversation with a friend last summer motivated him to push for a change. The friend, who is a Superior Court judge in Washington, asked why Maryland wasn’t taking care of domestic violence victims.

“And what she said to me was, ‘We keep getting folks who are moving to the District of Columbia because they can’t get protection in the state of Maryland,’” Frosh recalled Thursday.

Del. Joseph Vallario, D-Prince George’s, said abuse victims often have limited time to gather evidence before their court hearings. And because they generally don’t have attorneys at this stage, they may not realize how much evidence the judge will demand.

Long-term protective orders typically last for one year in Maryland, with options for extensions.

Dumais said the defining case for lowering the standard is a 2008 murder. Amy Castillo had requested a long-term protective order against her husband, but she couldn’t prove she needed it. Later her husband drowned their three children in the bathtub of a Baltimore hotel and stabbed himself in the neck.

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