STINKIER: Not Only Do the Courts Toss Most Restraining Order Petitions, a Lot of the Ones That Are Finalized Are Later Withdrawn by Their Petitioners

Posted on March 27, 2015


A couple available rejection rates for restraining order petitions filed with the courts were scrutinized in the last post. Those rates, based on news reports out of Colorado (1998) and Connecticut (2014) were high: roughly 82% (lowball calculation) and 72%, respectively. That’s how many restraining order petitions may be denied or dismissed by our courts. They’re either rejected at first glance, or they’re preliminarily approved and then vacated on review.

They’re judged to be stinky.

Yesterday, I came across this: “Many abuse victims request protection orders then have them dismissed” (March 26, 2015). How many? Almost half (in the cited county, anyhow).

The headline and slant of the story pain me, and I’m compelled to comment on them before broaching the meat of the article.

Note that the typical journalistic bias is in evidence: accusers are termed “abuse victims.” This bias accounts significantly for why the bad odor of the restraining order process is obscured. It stinks, too—of Glade aerosol.

My criticism may seem cold—many accusers assuredly are abuse victims—but a journalist’s brief is to report what he’s investigated, and it’s a safe bet that the “many abuse victims” referenced in the headline aren’t people whose cases the writer looked into. At all. He assumes they’re “abuse victims,” apparently because why else would they have claimed to be?

This is smelly news reporting, and Journalism 101 urges a revision: “Many who are granted protection orders then have them dismissed.” There’s a difference, and the journalist who doesn’t discern that difference is in the wrong line of work.

The writer also begins his story with an account of a woman who’d obtained a protection order against her husband only to be subsequently shot to death by that husband. Then the reader is informed:

Though [the homicide victim] had not asked for her protection order to be dismissed, many other victims do and some of them end up coming back and asking for additional protection orders.

In other words, the reported tragedy has absolutely nothing to do with people who “request protection orders then have them dismissed.” I studied journalism in high school under the tutelage of a man who was the real deal, so lurid and careless journalism offends me.

What do we know from what’s related by Matt Elofson, the crime and courts reporter for Alabama’s Dothan Eagle? We know people apply for restraining orders, get them, and then reconsider (and sometimes re-reconsider). And we know that one person, who never reconsidered the restraining order she was granted, was fatally shot (possibly as a consequence of seeking the state’s protection). These are facts; the rest is rhetoric and specious connections, which are journalistic no-nos.

The reportage of Mr. Elofson’s that isn’t corrupt, however, is telling.

Roughly 40 percent of the petitions for protection from abuse filed in Houston County over the past year were dismissed upon request of the victim.

Houston County Circuit Clerk Carla Woodall said 223 petitions for protection from abuse were filed in Houston County from March 2014 to March of this year. She said 90 of the 223 petitions were later dismissed upon request by the victim.

For “victim,” substitute “petitioner” (pretend, in other words, that it’s a news story that’s been quoted) and then note that it says nearly half of orders that are approved and finalized are afterwards withdrawn by their petitioners.

Nearly half.

Here’s what a journalist (somewhere, someday) should observe: Most restraining orders are denied or dismissed by our courts, and an arresting proportion of those that aren’t denied or dismissed are withdrawn. That’s a whole lot of “sound and fury signifying nothing” except a whole lot of misery for a whole lot of accused people.

This, furthermore, ignores that a majority of orders that are approved and not withdrawn may be false.

We’re not allowed to call the restraining order process a farce, because—as Mr. Elofson reminds us—sometimes people who procure restraining orders are legitimately at risk.

How, though, does Mr. Elofson remind us that restraining orders are necessary and vital to the protection of women? He reminds us by citing an instance in which a restraining order may have gotten its petitioner killed.

Copyright © 2015