Far more domestic assault charges are dropped than are prosecuted. Sometimes at the hand of the victims themselves. Victims may make a 911 call for help, but then fail to pursue the charge. They may refuse to cooperate with the prosecutor and may even state that they will lie, and deny the assault, if they are forced to appear in court. The frequency of women dropping charges may cause a reasonable judge to believe that the charge was frivolous. Perhaps they just called police when angry, acted impulsively and later regretted the choice. But was it really frivolous, or is something else going on here?
In my corner of Illinois, I had a conversation with our States Attorney and a judge last week. I asked why our domestic violence program for perpetrators is underutilized. I found that on that day, there were three charges of domestic assault that were dismissed. Why? The victims chose to drop the case.
No doubt that some cases are dropped by the alleged victim because they thought better of it and were not truly fearful for their safety. Perhaps there are a number of other plausible explanations for dropping the charge.
Maybe the victim just wanted to send a warning to their partner and feel they can handle it from there. Or, the love/hate nature of some relationships may cause one to seek help when in danger, but the honeymoon phase gives them a false sense of safety. Or, perhaps the perpetrator has intimidated the victim into silence by threat of an ugly divorce or custody battle.
There were examples of intimidation in the news recently. They shed light on reasons why some women would drop a charge.
In 1995 Bannon was engaged in a domestic dispute culminating in an arrest for domestic violence, battery and dissuading a witness. Dissuading a witness is the act of preventing or discouraging a victim from making a report. According to the police report, he did this by grabbing his wife’s phone and throwing it and causing damage to it so that she could not make the call. There were photographs of her injuries. However, she later stated that she dropped the charge because he intimidated her so that he wouldn’t testify against her at a divorce trial. She is quoted as saying that he “told me I had to leave town. That if I wasn’t in town they couldn’t serve me and I wouldn’t have to go to court. He also told me that if I went to court, he and his attorney would make sure that I would be the one who was guilty.” She in fact took their twins and left town. She didn’t return until the attorney phoned her and told her she could come back. When he went to court the report read that the victim was unable to be located and the case was dismissed.
Puzder’s ex-wife, Lisa Fierstein, went on the Oprah Winfrey Show and claimed that she was threatened to withdraw a 1990 charge of domestic assault or he would make her pay for this. He vowed revenge. “I will see you in the gutter.” She made a charge that he battered her by striking her violently about the face, chest, back, shoulders and neck, without provocation or cause. He left bruises and contusions and two ruptured discs and two bulging discs. He also unplugged the phone after she tried to call police for help during a 1986 assault. Calls to the police about domestic violence happened over a ten-year period. After the Oprah Winfrey Show, she later rescinded the charge as part of a divorce and child custody agreement. She continues to deny the allegations and reports that she made it up.
Domestic violence is one of the most serious crimes around, but often has less consequence than assault from a stranger. We don’t know why cases are not filed, or are dismissed, or how many result in a plea agreement, or how many result in diversions. But these are not frivolous cases. They may be evidence of ongoing power and control.
Admittedly, the legal system has their hand’s tied when faced with a victim who recants their charge. But holding batterers accountable and sentencing them to incarceration and treatment is a multifaceted problem that needs addressing. I recommend that we hold a town hall meeting to better understand this issue.