Experts say new domestic violence law needs clarification

A law that’s supposed to get tough on domestic abusers has been on the books for more than three months.

But it’s still not clear if anyone has been prosecuted under the new law.

Since June 20, anyone arrested for domestic abuse faces a felony charge instead of a misdemeanor if the abuse happened in the presence of a child 14 years old and under.

KHON2 asked prosecutors, a defense attorney, a lawmaker, as well as the Domestic Violence Action Center, and they tell us that the law needs more clarification and more time to work itself out.

Since the new law took effect, the Honolulu Police Department says 91 people have been arrested for domestic abuse in the presence of a child 14 and under. But how many have been charged with a felony is not clear.

Defense attorney Todd Eddins handles a lot domestic abuse cases, but he hasn’t seen any.

“It tells me that the prosecuting attorney also is bewildered by what may or may not be encompassed by the law. As I imagine, they are proceeding cautiously,” Eddins said.

KHON2 has been trying to get the Honolulu prosecutor’s office to talk about this in the last few weeks, but so far a spokesman tells us he has no comment.

Eddins says the law is not clear on whether it includes if the child is in another room and just hears the abuse.

The Kauai prosecutor’s office has similar issues, including what if the child hears the abuse by phone or even sees it through Skype.

“Does the law encompass that situation? We’re not sure and until that case reaches our desk, we’re not sure what we’re going to do,” said Kauai Deputy Prosecutor Kevin Takata.

Takata says they’ll interpret it the best way they can and let the appellate courts decide, which Eddins says is a bad idea.

“It shouldn’t just be, let’s throw something against the window and see if it sticks. They’re shirking their obligations if that is their philosophy,” Eddins said.

The Domestic Violence Action Center also has concerns with the child having to testify.

“They still might have to say it so many times and it’s traumatizing for my clients as adults, so I can see their concern for testifying for children,” said Fawn Jade Koopman, the center’s staff attorney.

The House Judiciary chairman says new laws need time to work themselves out.

“If it becomes clear that after a few months or a year or two that there’s some problem with it, that the intended goal of the legislation is not accomplishable, then maybe we come back and take a look at it again,” said House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Karl Rhoads.

Rep. Rhoads says he doesn’t see the need to make any changes to the law in the next legislative session, but if another lawmaker pushes a bill to make changes, that can be considered.

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