- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 5, 2014

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - After years of failure, South Dakota lawmakers appeared on track Wednesday to change the state’s domestic abuse laws to cover couples who are dating but don’t live together.

The South Dakota House voted 56-14 to pass a measure aimed at broadening the domestic abuse law to cover dating couples. The Senate has already approved a different version of the bill and will have to decide whether to accept a minor change made by the House.

Rep. Mike Stevens, R-Yankton, said the measure changes the law’s emphasis away from covering people who live in the same place to protecting people who are in relationships where one person is using abuse in an attempt to exert power and control over another.

“It is a fundamental change. It is a big, big change,” Stevens said.

Opponents questioned whether law officers and judges will be able to determine whether some unmarried couples qualify for protection, but supporters said the bill gives sufficient guidance to help officials decide who would be covered.

Current law defines domestic abuse as harm, the attempted harm or the infliction of fear committed by family or household members against spouses, former spouses, some relatives, people who live or have lived in the same household or people who have a child together.

The bill would expand coverage to people who are in a significant romantic relationship with each other or are expecting a child together.

The bill was written by a legislative summer study that was set up after the 2013 Legislature killed a measure that would have more clearly defined who is protected. The House and Senate a year ago could not agree on whether same-sex couples should be protected by the domestic abuse laws, but the measure approved Wednesday does not limit coverage to couples of the opposite sex.

Stevens said the bill gives protection to those who need it.

“We may not agree with how certain people live their lives or their relationships or their lifestyles,” Stevens said. “But that’s how our world is.”

A previous version of the bill would have covered people who had previously been in a romantic relationship, but the House changed it to cover only those currently in a relationship.

Rep. Lance Russell, R-Hot Springs, a former prosecutor, said he doubts law officers who respond to late-night complaints will be able to determine whether some couples are in significant romantic relationships.

But Rep. Dan Kaiser, R-Aberdeen, a police officer, said he supports the bill because the current law can require that a domestic abuse case be filed when two college roommates get into a fight. That’s because the existing law includes people who live together even if they have no real relationship, he said.

South Dakota does not have a stand-alone crime of domestic abuse. Instead, people are charged with assault or other crimes with a tag added to indicate when an offense involves domestic abuse. That tag, or notation, helps victims get protection orders against those who have hurt them and can help them qualify for other programs that provide protection and financial assistance.

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