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The Maria Teresa Macias Case

Macias Powers in the Hands of Women En Espanol

"The Rights of the People Live or Die in the Hearts of the People".

The federal civil rights case of Maria Teresa Macias vs. Sonoma County Sheriff's Department is done. From the life and domestic violence homicide of a Mexican immigrant woman whose pleas to the Sheriff for help were ignored, the case has created a constitutional cornerstone for women's rights to police protection.

First, two years ago, in a unanimous, 9th Circuit Court Appellate  decision, Macias established women's constitutional right to hold law enforcement legally accountable for failing to provide equal protection of the law. Then, in June, 2002, an unprecedented million dollar award marked the first time police have been ordered to pay the family of a domestic violence homicide victim for failure to properly protect.

But what now for the millions of battered women for whom the Macias court is as foreign as hope? For whom the gap between her powerlessness and the arbitrary powers of police looms as formidable as ever? The rights of the people, it is said, live or die in the hearts of the people. But how can women - poor, beaten, and ignored by police - begin to exercise their Macias rights?

There are some who are already standing on Macias in federal court. The family of domestic violence homicide victim, Claire Tempongko, for example, has now filed suit claiming that San Francisco law enforcement denied Claire's rights to equal protection prior to the homicide. But it would be tragic if Macias were only used as a kind of judicial last rites when yet another woman is killed. In order for the deep changes to occur in the daily responses women receive from law enforcement, Macias needs daily use by the living.

The language of the Macias Appellate court ruling is certainly broad enough to support it. The ruling, in fact, went beyond just declaring women's constitutional right to sue police for denial of equal protection. The court also ruled that it isn't necessary to show that police failures caused a murder, or further injury, or, in fact, caused any damage at all. The mere violation of equal protection by police, the court ruled, is sufficient injury, by itself,  to proceed with the suit. At least in the eleven western states where Macias is the law of the land, the legal remedy available to women has gone from completely shut to burst wide open.

Nor should women have to find a lawyer and file suit at every discriminatory slight by police. What's needed is that every woman carry these rights so deeply in her person that she reacts with immediate indignation and demands, instead of with deadly despair. When a young black woman is brushed off by a detective who won't investigate her rape, and she gathers up her friends, walks into the chief's office, and say 'Macias demands you investigate'!..... When a group of citizens marches into the DA's office and says, ‘You only have four prosecutors out of forty assigned to violence against women.' ‘Macias demands you have more!' ....When victim services stop dutifully cleaning up the human debris in the system's wake and start fighting like tigers for women's rights to equal protection.... Only then will the full powers of Macias be felt.

There are obstacles to taking on the criminal justice system, to be sure, and none more formidable than the centuries of despair and alienation women feel with the justice system in particular. Prior to Macias, the federal courts all the way to the Supreme court had consistently ruled that law enforcement has absolute discretion to decide which crimes it treats seriously and which it brushes off. No matter how much evidence, no matter how heinous the crime, nor how great the danger, law enforcement's right to turn their backs whenever they wished was upheld. This absolute police and prosecutorial discretion, combined with the extreme sexism in the justice system, has left women abandoned to the reign of violence against them. And it has left them without any means whatsoever to hold law enforcement accountable for the discriminatory denial of justice.

No wonder the violence against women rages on! No wonder women despair! No wonder women have backed away in fear when rebuffed by police! It's no easy thing to throw off generations of despair, especially when law enforcement bullies and intimidates with impunity. But the time is now. Macias is strong enough for women to stand on. And as with every other precious right, Macias will bear fruit or go barren, in the hearts and use of the people.

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Copyright © Marie De Santis,
Women's Justice Center,

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