Civil Harassment Orders vs. Domestic-Violence Restraining Orders

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Many U.S. states have established laws that allow any person to obtain through a civil process a restraining order against any other person. These orders have been called civil harassment orders. An initial civil harassment restraining order typically issues after perfunctory review of a civil petition filed ex parte on a pre-printed form. Civil harassment law in action is similar to that for civil petitions for domestic-violence restraining orders. Petitions for domestic-violence restraining orders typically require the petitioner to have with the respondent a relationship within enumerated categories. Civil harassment restraining petitions don’t require any categorical relationship between the petitioner and the respondent. In that sense, civil harassment restraining petitions encompass domestic-violence restraining petitions.

Distinguishing between civil harassment restraining orders and domestic-violence restraining orders isn’t straightforward. A recent review of civil harassment statutes declared:

Civil harassment statutes expand beyond the blueprint of domestic violence injunctions in two ways. One expansion involves the persons covered by the statutes. In response to concerns that intimidation and unwanted contact may arise even between non-intimates, these statutes eliminate any relationship requirement. Today, common pairings in civil harassment cases include disputes involving a person’s current spouse / boyfriend / girlfriend against a former spouse / boyfriend/ girlfriend, parents against their children’s boyfriends / girlfriends, neighbor against neighbor, co-worker against co-worker, tenant against landlord, and miscellaneous acquaintances against each other. The other expansion involves the conduct covered by the statutes. Domestic violence statutes authorize injunctions upon a showing of violence or threats, but that standard fails to capture lower-level aggression that can form an overall package of control, domination, or intimidation.^

Domestic-violence statutes specify a broad scope of relations and conduct. Current and former spouses and current and former boyfriends and girlfriends are commonly included with the relational specification of domestic-violence statutes.^ Moreover, allegations of relatively low-level aggression are common in domestic-violence petitions. A study of civil harassment petitions in the Las Vegas Justice Court indicates that 48% of those petitions were actually between persons who had a domestic relation as defined under domestic-violence law. The review of civil harassment laws did not recognize civil harassment laws operating in Florida, New York, or Massachusetts.^ Florida offers restraining orders in response to “repeat violence” petitions that do not have any relational boundaries.^ Massachusetts statistics for 2011 report separately “restraining orders” and “harassment orders.” The former probably represent domestic-violence restraining orders, and the later, non-domestic restraining orders. New York apparently issues restraining orders between persons who do not have a familial or intimate relation. Under NY Executive Law §221, these restraining order are not required to be registered in the domestic-violence protection-order registry.

The best current estimate for non-domestic restraining order petitions per year in the U.S. is 100,000, with a range of reasonable possibility stretching from 50,000 to 300,000 per year. Across U.S. states about 2008, administrative offices of courts reported about 120,000 restraining-order cases (petitions) separately from domestic-violence restraining-order petitions. Among the states reporting restraining petitions in categories, about 30% of petitions were reported in a category other than domestic petitions. The Nevada Las Vegas study suggests that a substantial share of those “other” petitions involve parties with a domestic relation. A reasonable estimate is that 20% of total restraining order petitions in states that have civil, non-domestic restraining order laws, e.g. civil harassment statutes, are non-domestic restraining petitions. That estimate implies 130,00 non-domestic restraining petitions across the U.S. as a whole. Given the uncertainty in that estimate, it’s best rounded further to 100,000. Civil petitions for domestic-violence restraining orders, in contrast, number about a million per year. Non-domestic restraining orders, in frequency of use and in disruptive effects on persons’ lives, are much less significant than domestic-violence restraining orders.

State-specific data on civil petitions for restraining orders are available in the restraining order datasets. Where the state court administrator lists a category of restraining orders separate from domestic-violence restraining orders, both counts are given. An state-by-state list of whether the state has a civil harassment statute is also available.

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