No matter how
much experience you have advocating for victims of violence
against women in the criminal justice system, most every
case will present you with new and challenging questions.
* A police
officer tells you he couldn't make an arrest because the
word co-habitant' in the domestic violence criminal
code doesn't cover two people living under the same roof
if they don't have an intimate relationship. Is the officer
giving you correct information or is the officer blowing
smoke in order to avoid the work of making an arrest?
* A prosecutor says you can't come into his meeting with
the victim because that will make you a witness in the
case. Is the prosecutor giving you correct information
or is the prosecutor blowing smoke in order to split you
off from your client?
* A rape victim
says the detective demanded that she turn over her diary,
but she doesn't want to. Does the victim have a right
to say "no" to the detective? Or does the detective
have the right to demand the victim's diary?
In order to advocate
effectively for your clients you'll need to be able to get
answers to literally hundreds of questions like these. And
usually you'll need to find the answers quickly. Fortunately,
there are many sources of criminal justice information.
Some of these sources will take you some time and experience
to develop, but others are available to you right now.
Here's a list
of sources of criminal justice
Your Active Curiosity: Don't
wait until your client's life hangs on unanswered questions.
Educate yourself daily by constantly formulating questions
as you work your clients' cases. Keep a list of the questions
at your side, and then dig up the answers at every opportunity.
Watch your knowledge grow, and along with it, the power
of your advocacy to liberate women's lives.
and Read the Penal Code: Your state penal code is the
criminal justice system bible. If you are a victim advocate
you should own an up-to-date copy of your state's penal
code. And you should read and refer to it often. (The companies
that publish state codes are often willing to donate free
copies to non profit organizations. Ask, and you'll likely
When you first
begin reading the penal code you'll probably find the language
to be difficult and unfamiliar. But it won't take long for
the legal language to smooth out and come into focus. The
penal code will quickly be extremely beneficial to yourself
and your clients. A good way to begin making the penal code
your best friend is to look through the index for topics
that interest you and start reading.
In addition to
the Penal Code, there are a number of other state codes
that have sections that are relevant to the work you do
with victims of rape, domestic violence and child abuse;
such as the Evidence Code, the Family Code, the Government
Code, and others. On the occasions when you need these,
you can find them at your local law library and now, most
every state has their full set of legal codes on the internet
in searchable form.
Local Law Enforcement Domestic Violence Written Policies:
Most states require that local law enforcement agencies
have written domestic violence law enforcement policies.
In fact, not only are these requirements spelled out very
clearly in many state's penal codes, the penal codes usually
also specify in detail what must be included in the written
to have copies of your local law enforcement agency's written
domestic violence polices on hand. These policies are usually
clearly written and comprehensive. They set the local law
enforcement standards of the procedures, laid out in step-by-step
format, that the agency expects their officers to follow
when responding to domestic violence calls. Not only are
most of these policies a good education on modern police
practices. As an advocate, these policies are invaluable
for you to point to when officials fall short in their responses
to your clients.
also have similar law enforcement policies covering sex
crimes. And some jurisdictions have law enforcement policies
covering district attorney response to domestic violence
Any and all of
these polices are public documents and, as such, your police
agency or district attorney must give you a copy
of these polices when you request them. It's the law. Who
says? Look in your state's Government Code for your state's
public information act or freedom of information act.
In addition to
your own local law enforcement policies, it's very worthwhile
to look at the law enforcement policies of a couple of the
most progressive law enforcement jurisdictions who have
written model policies and put them on the internet. One
of these is the San Diego law enforcement domestic violence
policies that can be found at www.sandiegodvcouncil.org/sddvc.html
(click on library.)
model policy is the International Association of Chiefs
of Police model policy for responding to law enforcement
officers accused of domestic violence at www.theiacp.org/documents/pdfs/Publications/
Law: Though the state codes contain the laws as written
in your state, they won't be able to answer every question
you have. No matter how well a law is written there are
always going to be gray areas that require further interpretation.
These further interpretations are handed down by your state's
appellate court in what's known as case law'.
returning to the question we started with in which an officer
tells you he can't make an domestic violence arrest because
the man who lives in the apartment with your client isn't
a co-habitant under the meaning of domestic violence criminal
law. The Penal Code clearly won't help you here, since the
penal code doesn't define all the possibilities of who's
a co-habitant and who's not. The answer to the question
of who's included and who's not included in the meaning
of co-habitant' is to be found in the case law.
At some point
an individual (a roommate, not an intimate) is convicted
of domestic violence. The man says, "How can I be convicted
of domestic violence? I'm not in any relationship with this
woman, I'm just a roommate." So he appeals the case
up to an appellate court. The appellate court agrees with
the man and the decision of the appellate court now becomes
part of a more finely tuned definition of who is and who
is not included in the meaning of 'co-habitant' in the criminal
domestic violence law.
As you can imagine,
searching case law is arduous, especially if you don't have
a legal education. But don't despair. Here are some great
short cuts, not just for obtaining case law, but for all
the many other questions you may have.
- VICTIMS: California and many other states have established
public phone banks to answer victims' and advocates' legal
questions. In California, this service is staffed by law
students whose job it is to do the legal research for you.
Your taxes paid for this excellent service. Use them. Use
them over and over again. In California the number to call
is 800 - VICTIMS.
Just pick up
the phone, and ask them, "Does the word co-habitant'
in the penal code domestic violence law include two people
who live under the same roof but who don't have an intimate
relationship?" Ask them any other of a million questions
that may arise in your client's case.
If you don't
know if your state has a similar service, call a state legislature's
office and ask one of the aides to look up whether or not
your state has established a victim's rights answer line.
Experts in Your Community: (People Worth Their Weight
in Gold) Believe it or not, it's virtually guaranteed that
there are many people in your community who know the answer
to your every question. All you have to do is know which
person to call and when. As long as the individual is not
involved in the case you're calling about, most will be
flattered by your request for legal information.
So here's a short
list of the people we find most helpful: veteran crime reporters
on the local paper, the county law librarian, legislative
aides, city attorneys, and local police, prosecutors, probation
officers, and judges not associated with the case.
And there's one
other set of people you've probably never thought of asking,
but who know the criminal law inside and out: criminal defense
attorneys- especially public defenders who deal with legal
fine points of domestic violence and sexual assault on a
daily basis. It's their bread and butter. So strike up a
professional friendship with some of the defense attorneys
in your town. They are generally very willing to give you
information. And unlike police and prosecutors, criminal
defense attorneys aren't usually suspicious that you're
trying to bolster your stance against another officer's
Another way to
go if you have a question which has the potential of getting
a local official in trouble is to call officials in another
county. In fact, it's a very good idea to connect with officials
who are national leaders in the field, such as prosecutors
or police sergeants who head progressive domestic violence
or sex crimes units in large metropolitan areas. When you
do this, make sure you look for people in your own state
to assure they are working with the same body of law as
email lists and web sites: There are a number of excellent
internet resources for victim advocates. Two outstanding
searchable document banks on violence against women are
CAVNET at www.cavnet2.com
and MINCAVA. at www.mincava.umn.edu.
There is also an invaluable web site designed to answer
your specific case questions via email communication with
their own bank of experts. This site can be found at www.vaonline.org.
There are also
a number of lively email lists dedicated to violence against
women. FIVERS and the Spanish language Mujeres en Red are
among the best at this writing. Putting your question on
one of these email lists is certain to get you a broad range
of multiple responses.
enforcement Field Guides: Most state Attorney General's
Offices produce and annually update a field guide for law
enforcement officers - everything a police officer
needs to know to enforce the law'. These field guides are
tight packed, well organized, low priced, and very easy
to use. Ask your favorite officer where to get a copy.
Local Criminal Justice Record System: Though your local
criminal justice system records departments are unlikely
to be able to answer your legal questions, they are a gold
mine of invaluable information on individual cases. Through
your local criminal justice record systems you can obtain:
perpetrator histories, statistics, money trails, arrest
records, court files, arrest warrants, booking records,
lawsuits, dispatch records, and much more. It's essential
that you learn your way around these records, and how to
obtain them, especially when they don't want to give them
this isn't too difficult. Most of these records are public
record documents. And if one clerk won't help you find them,
another will. And if for any reason, you're refused access
to a document, the one person in your community who you
can almost always depend on for knowledgeable help is the
crime reporter on your local newspaper. Remember, crime
reporters are digging through these records on a daily basis
for background on their stories. Call them when you get
in a bind.