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Don’t place burden on victims

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Allowing victims of domestic violence to dismiss criminal complaints against their abusers - some of whom live in the same home - is akin to letting a coercive fox guard the henhouse. It may put the abused in an untenable position and is a poor idea. Utah law was intended to remove the burden of prosecution from their shoulders.

Yet that is the legal interpretation of a domestic-abuse law rendered by the three-person Utah Court of Appeals - a decision that should be reconsidered by the Utah Supreme Court or rendered moot through legislative refinement.The issue arose in a case involving an elderly woman who was allegedly hit by her daughter. The incident was reported to police, who found a large bruise on the woman's face. Salt Lake City filed a battery charge against the daughter. At the arraignment, the mother requested, through an attorney, that the complaint be dismissed. She insisted she sustained the bruise by falling, not by being hit, as she initially alleged. A judge ruled it was in the best interest of the victim to dismiss the charge and not to go through with the trial.

Obviously, such a scenario brings with it all sort of possibilities that may not be evident to observers. Victims may drop charges for reasons of fear or pressure. Who really is instigating the change of heart, the victim or a manipulative family member trying to stay out of trouble?

The city argued before the Court of Appeals that crime victims do not have standing to have judges drop a criminal prosecution, which is true for most offenses. But a law related to victims' rights in domestic-violence cases was specifically enacted following passage of the victim-rights amendment to the Utah Constitution in 1994. That statute allows a trial court to dismiss a charge involving domestic violence "at the request of the victim the court has reasonable probable cause to believe that the dismissal would benefit the victim."

Before the law was passed, victims of domestic violence were required to sign a criminal complaint. That responsibility was taken from them to lessen the likelihood of intimidation and coercion from the perpetrator and to reduce emotional trauma.

The language of the new law cited by the appeals court was intended for the prosecutors, not victims. Prosecutors must convincingly prove to the court the victim is best served by dismissal. That extra step did not occur in the Salt Lake City case. Instead, the judge accepted the victim's request at face value.

That misguided legal interpretation gives added leverage to abusers who further manipulate the system by coercing those they have harmed. It also threatens the welfare of those who refuse to press charges against a family member due to guilt or fear. It gives additional control to those who are masters of manipulation - abusers of children, spouses and the elderly.