“American Law is Irresponsible”: The American Civil Standard of Evidence and Abuse of Restraining Orders

Posted on April 26, 2014


“On the European continent, for the court to hold against the defendant, the judge must be convinced that the facts brought forward by the plaintiff in support of the claim are indeed true. In principle, continental law does not make a difference between civil law and criminal law […]. By contrast, U.S. law has three different standards of proof […]. In criminal law, the charge must be established ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ In civil law, normally the plaintiff wins if only ‘the preponderance of the evidence’ is in [his or] her favour. Only in a limited number of civil law matters, of particular gravity for the defendant, the intermediate standard of ‘clear and convincing evidence’ must be met.”

—Dr. Cristoph Engel

The monograph from which this quotation is excerpted, which is by a professor of experimental law and economics, begins by candidly remarking that “American law is irresponsible.”

No argument here.

At the root of restraining order injustice is the lax evidentiary standard applied to plaintiffs’ allegations. Not only may allegations on restraining orders be false; a judge doesn’t have to be convinced that they’re not false to find in favor of their plaintiff.

Excepting in Maryland, which adjudicates the merits of civil restraining order allegations based on the intermediate standard of “clear and convincing evidence,” the standard applied to restraining orders is “preponderance of the evidence.”

If claims seem more likely true than false, “preponderance of the evidence” is satisfied.

In other words, the law is contented if a single judge (not a jury of independent thinkers) reckons the allegations against a defendant are “probably true” (or “maybe true” or “true enough”). To be effective, all allegations have to be is compelling.

Making allegations compelling isn’t a tall task for people in the throes of bitter animosity, as restraining order plaintiffs typically are, and it’s a cakewalk for unscrupulous liars, who are hardly rare among restraining order plaintiffs.

Officers of our courts have furthermore had it impressed upon them that they shouldn’t question allegations made pursuant to the procurement of restraining orders, which are presumed to be sought by those in need of protection.

The legal standard familiar from TV and the movies, “proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” is reserved for criminal prosecutions. For a judge to find in favor of a civil restraining order plaintiff, no proof of his or her allegations is necessary.

Why this is a big deal is that being publically accused is agonizing. Cops and constables serve restraining orders on people at their homes, and just the documents themselves terrorize and shame (as they’re meant to). Allegations on restraining orders, what’s more, are never harmless. Even alleged minor offenses like harassment are inevitably tinged with overtones of danger and/or sexual deviancy. Plaintiffs are inclined to make their allegations as sensational as possible to justify their applications to the courts, and the courts are inclined to find threat or perversion even where none may exist to justify their intrusions into defendants’ lives.

Defendants are met with damning fingers from all directions—and enduringly, because restraining orders (and the allegations on them) are public records, accessible by anyone, that never disappear.

What makes this an even bigger deal, especially when evidence is fraudulently represented or allegations are false, is that restraining order defendants further face loss of employment and employability, as well as loss of access to kids, home, and property in a majority of cases.

Revisiting a phrase used by the author of the epigraph, such losses easily qualify as “particularly grave” and should therefore require the application of a more conclusive standard of evidence by our courts than “close enough.”

Exacerbating the injustice of this tenuous standard is that restraining orders are issued based solely on the word of their plaintiffs (ex parte). Decisions that may result in the losses enumerated above proceed from testimony given in interviews rarely lasting longer than 10 minutes.

Such hearings are far more perfunctory than probative. Basically a judge is just looking for a few cue words to run with and may literally be satisfied by a plaintiff’s saying, “I’m afraid.” (Talk show host David Letterman was notoriously issued a restraining order based on the petition of a woman who accused him of mentally oppressing her through her TV.)

What you have, then, on top of the presupposition of guilt, is a wishy-washy protocol yoked to a wishy-washy evidentiary standard.

It’s true that defendants are afforded the opportunity to challenge allegations leveled against them and actually address the court, but these follow-up hearings, also mere minutes long, are necessarily biased by the court’s prior findings.

The issuance of a restraining order (based on a few-minute chitchat) already represents a ruling, and the court’s disposition isn’t to contradict itself. This bias, authorized by a low evidentiary bar, too often translates to follow-up hearings’ being little more than theater—and an opportunity to subject defendants to additional humiliation and scorn.

Judges coyly criticize their partiality as “paternal.” Considering, however, the steep toll that that partiality may exact from innocent defendants, this self-excuse is nothing shy of obscene (and underscores the cognitive disconnect to which judges are prone between their performances in the courtroom and the effects of those performances on people’s lives).

Clearly the motive for applying a diminished standard of evidence to any courtroom procedure is not to decrease the likelihood of error. The lower the standard of evidence is, that much greater is the probability that miscarriages of justice will occur. When such miscarriages equate to innocent defendants’ being subjected to public humiliation and defamation, loss of employment, and effacement from their former lives, besides their having to tolerate the ever-looming possibility of incarceration following further false allegations’ being made against them, nothing less than the highest standard of evidence is conscionable.

The criticism of the writer of this post’s epigraph that “American law is irresponsible” doesn’t even begin to say it.

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