Sunday, November 15, 2009

Connecticut Takes a Step to Protect Men’s Rights

The basic principle of due process is that a defendant whose rights the state wants to limit is entitled to notice of the charge against him/her and a hearing before an impartial arbiter. But in the area of domestic violence law, those two basic rights are usually ignored. The mere allegation of domestic violence can be enough to deprive a person of constitutional rights (refer to my two previous posts).

Connecticut resident Fernando A., whose full name is not released in court records, was divorcing when his wife fabricated the attack story to gain leverage in family court proceedings. He never got a chance to object to the order of protection issued against him that removed him from his house and prevented him from seeing his children. His lawyer, Steven D. Ecker, of Hartford’s Cowdery, Ecker & Murphy, asked for an evidentiary hearing, but Superior Court Judge James Bingham denied the request. Ecker then challenged the denial up to the state Supreme Court.

The Connecticut Supreme Court then ruled an opinion in which states that, in order to award a restriction order, a defendant must be granted an evidentiary hearing at which the state must consider both sides of the story and must prove, by the civil standard of a preponderance of evidence, that the order is necessary. The defendant may testify or present witnesses, and may cross-examine any witnesses against him. The order may be issued initially on little evidence and with no notice to the defendant, leaving the defendant with no opportunity to defend himself, but that order can now remain in force only for a "reasonable" period of time (what constitutes a reasonable time remains gray area).

This is small but very important step towards a fair treatment of those who are accused of domestic violence, which in turn is a step towards a fair custody awarding system, because, as we all know, domestic violence accusations are one of the instruments most commonly used to block fathers from having custody and visitation rights.

This court opinion has its setbacks. Judges have an extremely broad discretion and can emit restriction orders based on little evidence, relying only on the written materials and hearsay to continue their restriction order. How long a defendant may be deprived of his home, his belongings, access to his children, bank accounts, etc., is not specified. The standard of proof required is, instead of the more restrictive criminal standard, the civil one of "preponderance of the evidence," which means that if the prosecution produces barely more than half of the evidence submitted to court, it wins and the defendant's children may face an indefinite time apart from him.

Again: this is a small step, but a small step in the right direction. Hopefully, this Connecticut court opinion will serve as a deterrent against false accusations and as a shield to protect men’s basic constitutional rights. Hopefully this court opinion will save many men from living in constant fear and intimidation.

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