“Do I Need a Lawyer?”: On Combating Restraining Orders

Posted on May 28, 2013


“Do I need a lawyer?” is a question that commonly brings restraining order defendants to this blog and other sites like it.

No one wants to shell out thousands for an attorney to bat away allegations made on a restraining order that may have been concocted in a fit of pique by an embittered friend, a jealous ex, or a crazy neighbor. Too, it’s often the case that allegations leveled by restraining order plaintiffs are of a kind no one wants to advertise to strangers, let alone friends and family. Just the implications of the phrase restraining order are enough to make most people recoil.

I know someone who applied to the mayor for a character reference after she was falsely accused of domestic violence—on a restraining order—by a married friend she’d briefly renewed an association with. Sounds insane, right? The judge ultimately tossed the case after observing that the allegation wasn’t even applicable, because the plaintiff and the defendant weren’t in a domestic relationship. But that didn’t cause a judge any hesitation in approving the restraining order in the first place, and imagine what it cost this woman emotionally to have to explain the matter and ask for help. Imagine further if she had been a he, and you can appreciate the horror of fighting these kinds of allegations, which are validated by judges on a modicum of evidence, if any, and which neither cost nor risk their plaintiffs anything to make. Restraining orders are cheap or free to get, and no one is ever actually jailed for lying to get them.

I did a quick scan today of top Google returns for the term “lying to the court.” Most commenters weighed in that lying = perjury, which is a crime, so beware. It’s true that lying about a material fact in court (a fact, that is, that’s likely to influence a judge’s opinion) is a statutory crime. A felony, no less. Equally true, though, and much more pertinent is that lying isn’t prosecuted. So there’s nothing really for a fraudulent plaintiff to have to be wary of except maybe a little embarrassment if actually caught in a lie (and most plaintiffs, of course, aren’t aware that lying to a judge is a crime, so it’s not even on their minds).

Someone who’s morally bankrupt enough to lie to a judge in the first place isn’t going to hesitate because of the risk of shame if s/he’s caught. Shame is an emotion to which s/he’s obviously immune, anyway.

In the administration of restraining orders, the ideal of justice isn’t given priority. Restraining orders are issued ex parte, which means they’re approved without the judge’s having the faintest idea who s/he’s issuing a restraining order against. The only person the judge hears from is the plaintiff, and hearings to obtain restraining orders are typically 10-minute affairs.

Talk show host David Letterman was famously issued a restraining order petitioned by a stranger who lived in another part of the country. The judge didn’t think twice about rubber-stamping the thing and moving on to the next applicant.

Defendants don’t need attorneys; it’s perfectly lawful for them to defend themselves in an appeals hearing. Whether defendants need attorneys to better their chances of a favorable verdict is a different question entirely. David Letterman, it should go without saying, had a team of them. And it should come as no surprise that they shredded the restraining order to confetti.

A cynical answer to the question of whether defendants need attorneys to improve their odds of beating a bum rap is that defendants who can afford attorneys are perceived as deserving greater consideration than ones who can’t (or who don’t know enough to seek counsel—or who are hoping they can just quietly make the whole thing go away on their own). This answer doesn’t jibe with the judicial canon that everyone should be treated the same, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Because restraining orders are issued ex parte, the idea that fairness obtains at any stage of the process is clearly dubious.

Truth and falsehood in judicial proceedings are, besides, very relative things. For truth to even exercise its power to dispel lies depends on how effectively a defendant can make it plain to the judge. As straightforward as a naïve defendant might believe this to be, it’s not as simple as stating facts that contradict fraudulent testimony or producing some evidence that’s expected to be conclusive. The judge might decide that that evidence is irrelevant or that the lie it exposes is immaterial to the case. Or s/he might decide s/he doesn’t like the defendant period. Can you lose a case because the judge doesn’t like you or likes the plaintiff better? Sure. Does that have anything to do with the truth of the plaintiff’s allegations against you? No.

Representation by an attorney isn’t a guarantee of success. The mere presence of one, though, will give you a degree of credibility you wouldn’t otherwise have. An attorney with courtroom experience, furthermore, has presentational skills that you lack. Restraining order appeals hearings are very brief, judges tend to be skeptical of defendants (particularly men), and even a self-styled Perry Mason may find him- or herself stammering and squirming once s/he’s in the hot seat under the glare of the judge.

There’s the possibility, too, that the plaintiff will have an attorney, and attorneys aren’t known either for playing fair or for showing mercy to their opponents. Some attorneys—gasp—are even professional liars. Several respondents to this blog, in fact, have had false restraining orders petitioned against them by attorneys who were ex-lovers or -spouses or—in one case—a parent. The restraining order process, more than any other, brings out the worst in human nature.

If you’re the defendant in a restraining order case, especially one grounded on fraud, get an attorney.


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