Vague Wording and Inconsistencies in South Carolina’s Changes to Domestic Violence Laws Leads to Confusion
In August, Governor Nikki Haley heard from a task force of 130 people from 66 different law enforcement agencies about their efforts to handle domestic violence incidents with the new laws, which have been in place since June of this year. What the governor found, unfortunately, that confusion about how to prosecute domestic violence led to wildly inconsistent enforcement across the state.
South Carolina has consistently ranked among the top states for the number of women killed by men in a domestic violence situation, particularly with guns. New laws finally passed this year that increased domestic violence penalties, stepping up the seriousness of the criminal charges from misdemeanor to felony depending on how serious the wounds were, if there were children present, and if weapons, especially guns, were used in the domestic violence incident. Previously, domestic violence charges were misdemeanors until perpetrators reached a certain number of domestic violence charges.
“One thing we learned through this whole process is a lot of the agencies were kind of doing their own thing,” said Leroy Smith, director of the Department of Public Safety. “There are a lot of inconsistencies out there from training to enforcement to prosecution.”
Although there is definitely concern that innocent people will be charged more harshly with domestic violence, other issues have surfaced that could seriously complicate the ability of courts to examine evidence. For example, police are required to keep the victims and alleged abusers in separate rooms for questioning, but many police departments fail to take those actions. This can color statements from both parties. Officers also failed in many cases to document whether or not children were present during the abuse incident, which could not only prevent vital evidence from being entered on the record, but changes how domestic violence charges are handled.
Additionally, Governor Haley found through the task force that many 911 operators are not trained on how to respond to domestic violence calls. “If they don’t know the right questions to ask, then the officer doesn’t know what they’re walking into,” she said. This can go both ways – not only can it prevent victims from getting help they need quickly, it could also mean an innocent person is arrested on more serious domestic violence charges.
Sara Barber, director of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, who was also a member of the task force, said, “The new law came into effect in June so it’s been a very, very short time and I think, looking at evaluating any law’s impact, you have to give it much longer time period before we can really see what that has been.”
Laura Hudson, executive director of the South Carolina Crime Victims’ Council and also a member of the task force. She has been pushing for tougher domestic violence laws in South Carolina for years. However, part of her reasoning was to push for better data so real, long-lasting, and fair solutions to the problem would hopefully become apparent. The enforcement problems make that data collection for difficult.
“We don’t know whether we’re accomplishing anything,” she said.
Attorneys Bakari Sellers and Alexandra Benevento from the Strom Law Firm, L.L.C. have also challenged the legitimacy of the changes to domestic violence law in South Carolina, because the law specifically protects women from male partners. It does not protect men from violent women, nor does it protect same sex couples, which skews data on domestic violence, skews ability of police to enforce domestic violence law, and could be unconstitutional.