Four local law enforcement officers spoke during the three days of vigils held last week in Bingham County to mark Domestic Violence Awareness Month — police chiefs from Blackfoot, Aberdeen, and Shelley as well as the county sheriff.
For the most part, it’s safe to say that a ruling from the Idaho Supreme Court handed down June 12 was not warmly received by law enforcement, though they have no choice but to enforce the law as the court sees fit while trying their best to make the most of it.
The court’s unanimous ruling says law enforcement officers can’t arrest someone for a misdemeanor unless they have a warrant or actually saw the crime being committed, and it’s meant officers have had to change how they respond to and investigate some domestic violence calls.
Officers responding to domestic violence calls in the past have often arrested the person they suspect of committing the violence on a misdemeanor charge as a way of separating those involved and defusing the situation.
It wasn’t until 1979 that Idaho lawmakers added a state law that allowed the warrantless arrest of someone if the officer reasonably believed that the person had committed a misdemeanor assault or battery outside the presence of the officer, according to the ruling written by Justice Joel Horton. He said that law didn’t meet the constitutional standard barring unlawful searches and seizures, and that was important because when the Constitution was written, the law was that people couldn’t be arrested for minor crimes without a warrant.
Idaho Code “permits peace officers to use their arrest powers to intervene in domestic violence situations, even though they have not personally observed the commission of a crime, and to thereby defuse potentially violent circumstances,” Horton wrote. “The extremely powerful policy considerations (allowing warrantless misdemeanor arrests) must yield to the requirements of the Idaho Constitution.”
To a man, each of the law enforcement chiefs in Bingham County expressed concern and frustration about the possible effects of the ruling while still dedicating themselves to upholding the law of the land as it now stands.
To a man, they said the ruling was damaging to victims’ rights especially in cases of domestic violence.
”My fear with that is that reporting on domestic violence cases is going to die,” Blackfoot Police Chief Scott Gay said. “My fear is that more domestic violence cases are going to happen.”
”If they decide to fix it (with a constitutional amendment) it will be good, but if they decide to just pass on it, I think you will see the felony domestic battery arrests continue to climb. Depending on evidence, of course,” said Aberdeen Police Chief Chuck Carroll.
“The decision by the Supreme Court was a bad decision in how we can investigate these cases,” Shelley Police Chief Rod Mohler said bluntly. “We had a meeting of chiefs of police, and there was a unanimous decision that we will do everything we can to get that changed. We will be at the state capitol in January to make our voices heard. It doesn’t just handicap what we can do, it affects the victims.”
Gay said a change in the state constitution would be the best option to reverse the decision when it comes to domestic violence.
“Get educated, have an opinion, and get the right thing done,” Gay said at the Blackfoot vigil.
The sentiment has been the same with many law enforcement officials throughout the state.
Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue said in a statement after the ruling was issued, “While I do not know all the factors that brought the Idaho Supreme Court to come to their decision ... I believe the ruling may cause significant risk to victims of domestic violence and will make it significantly more difficult for law enforcement and the courts to hold offenders of domestic violence accountable. Sadly, I think it will drastically reduce the progress we as a society have made in bringing an awareness to the issue of domestic violence and we will find it more difficult for victims to be protected.”
Annie Pelletier Hightower, director of law and policy with the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, has spoken up on behalf of organizations such as the Bingham Crisis Center in terms of the ruling’s impact.
”We know there is this body of research showing that the separation of individuals in the relationship reduces risk,” she said. “If law enforcement doesn’t have the opportunity to separate by arrest, then we’re back into the situation where it is the person who has experienced abuse and who is in the most upheaval, likely with the fewest resources, forced to leave the home. As a community, how do we support those survivors leaving their homes?”
Come January, the ball will be squarely in the court of the Idaho Legislature to do what is needed to protect victims in cases of domestic violence.