Domestic Violence Fairytales Threaten Constitutional Protections
Kristin Ruggiero of New Hampshire figured it would be a slam dunk. The gambit worked like a charm during the divorce hearing; now she would bring the case to criminal court.
Her husband Jeffrey, an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard, was an incorrigible batterer, at least that’s what she led to the judge to believe. That got him convicted of criminal threatening, and she won custody of their 7-year-old daughter.
But Kristin Ruggiero wasn’t finished.
One day, the woman bragged to her startled ex, “I took all your money, I took your daughter, and now I’m going to take your career.” She went out and purchased a disposable cell phone and registered it in Jeffrey's name. Then she sent herself a passel of threatening text messages.
Apparently Kristin didn’t realize that in criminal court, allegations are subjected to a higher standard of proof. And all of a sudden the nefarious scheme to frame her ex-husband came crashing down.
Last week Kristin Ruggiero was convicted on 12 counts of falsifying physical evidence and sentenced to 7-14 years in prison.
This tale is not so much about a distraught woman sorely in need of psychological help. Rather, it’s a story of a police department, a prosecutor, and a judge that allowed themselves to be duped by a conniving perjurer. And it’s about a criminal justice system that has all but abandoned due process in a frenzied attempt to curb domestic violence.
Like everything in the law, the problem begins with definitions. The Violence Against Women Act, passed during the first term of the Clinton administration, includes a definition of domestic violence that is so wide you could drive a Mack truck through it.
States picked up on the loophole, and now most states include within their definitions of abuse, actions like making your partner “annoyed” or “distressed.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) likewise followed suit. The CDC’s Uniform Definitions and Recommended Data Elements declares that partner violence includes “getting annoyed if the victim disagrees,” “withholding information from the victim,” and even “disregarding what the victim wants.”
Note the CDC’s repeated use of the word “victim.” In VAWA-speak, a victim does not need to be a prostrate body lying in a pool of blood. Rather, a mere accusation elevates you to the status of victim. No proof of violence is necessary. Recall the Queen of Hearts’ disdainful remark, “Sentence first, verdict afterwards.”
Fanciful definitions are just the beginning.
Favored with $1 billion in federal largess each year, our nation’s domestic violence industry has created an alternate-reality legal system that would confound even the likes of Alice.
Our Looking Glass criminal justice system features judges who have been educated to always “err on the side of caution”; victim advocates who coach putative victims how to embellish their claims; and free legal help to accusers (but not defendants).
And for readers with a well-honed sense of fairy-tale humor, mandatory prosecution policies epitomize a legal system run amok. Often the “victim” decides she has taught her boyfriend enough of a lesson and recants her story. But zealous prosecutors have taken to jailing these women until they agree to cooperate. That draconian practice allowed a California woman to secure a $125,000 false arrest award a few years ago.
Such strong-arm practices have not escaped the attention of civil rights groups. The Washington Civil Rights Council has described our current domestic violence system as creating the “biggest civil rights roll-back since the Jim Crow era.”
Last year the Connecticut chapter of the ACLU took on the case of Fernando A., a man who had been falsely accused of throwing his wife down a flight of stairs. When a judge then deprived him of the right to a hearing to decide whether to remove his children, the ACLU took the case to the state’s Supreme Court. Fernando A. won on a 5-2 decision.
Earlier this year, Stop Abusive and Violent Environments, a Washington, D.C.-based victim advocacy organization, released a report titled “How Domestic Violence Laws Curtail our Fundamental Freedoms." The report concludes that each year, over two million Americans have their fundamental civil liberties overruled by the Violence Against Women Act.
Consider the constitutional guarantees of due process, probable cause for arrest, right to a fair trial, and equal treatment under the law -- all are cast aside by get-tough-on-crime domestic violence laws.
The tall irony is that Vice President Joe Biden, who proudly championed VAWA when he was a senator in the early 1990s, is a former professor of constitutional law.