Judges Have New Tools to Protect Domestic Violence Victims

June 6, 2018

Two laws recently passed by the Tennessee General Assembly have given the state’s judges new tools to help protect victims of domestic violence.

One law, SB1796/HB2033, targets cell phones. Judges can now order wireless telephone service providers to grant domestic violence victims control over their own cell phone numbers if those cell phone numbers are on an account held by an alleged abuser.

The other law, SB1735/HB1719, will change the way that courts respond to the arrests of alleged perpetrators of domestic violence. If a court finds probable cause that an alleged perpetrator “caused serious bodily injury” or “used or displayed a weapon,” then a judge will issue a “no contact order” to keep the perpetrator away from the victim. That no contact order will be added as a mandatory condition of the perpetrator’s bond and will be in addition to a requested civil order of protection.  

Cell phones

Cell phones can be valuable resources for victims of domestic abuse, allowing them to maintain contact with friends and family members or reach out for help from law enforcement or other agencies.

Unfortunately, because of the way that many cell phone plans are structured, cell phones can also tie victims to their abusers even after the victim has left a violent situation. If an abuser is the primary account holder on a family plan, for instance, that abuser may have access to a plethora of information from the abuser’s cell phone, including location and call and messaging data. 

The new law in Tennessee gives victims the ability to separate their phones and phone numbers from a plan, even if they are not the primary account holders. In that way, they can retain their independence and their data without having to worry about their abusers monitoring their cell phones.

When filling out an order of protection, a domestic violence victim now has the option of checking a box asking a judge to “transfer the billing responsibility for and rights to wireless telephone number(s).” There is then a separate form that they can fill out and send to their wireless provider. The forms are available on the Administrative Office of the Courts website - https://www.tncourts.gov/node/305439

The bill was sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) and Representative Jim Coley (R- Bartlett). It went into effect on April 18 upon Governor Bill Haslam’s signature.

No contact order

The other domestic violence bill provides an additional layer of protection to victims by having judges attach no contact orders to alleged perpetrators’ bond conditions.

Previously, judges would automatically issue civil orders of protection against alleged abusers found to have caused serious bodily harm or to have used or displayed a weapon. The new law keeps the process in criminal court by having the no contact order issued as part of bond. After the no contact order is issued in criminal court, a victim can still petition for an order of protection from civil court, thus obtaining two safeguards against an alleged abuser.

This new law goes into effect on July 1 and was sponsored by Representative William Lamberth (R-Cottontown) and Senator Brian Kelsey (R- Germantown).

Judicial Reaction

Tennessee judges are reacting positively to the passage of the legislation.

11th District Circuit Court Judge J.B. Bennett expressed gratitude and appreciation to all of the legislators who sponsored the bills as well as to Rep. Mike Carter (R-Ooltewah), chair of the House Civil Justice Subcommittee, for his work in helping to shepherd the bill through the legislative process.

“The citizens of the state of Tennessee have been well-served by our legislature,” Judge Bennett said.

Judge Bennett oversees numerous hearings related to domestic violence in his courtroom each week. Over and over, he has seen the toll that abuse can take on victims.

“It’s very emotional,” he said. “I can tell by their faces it takes a great deal of courage to come down to court and get an order of protection for a lot of different reasons.”

Those reasons can be financial—victims are often financially dependent on their abusers—or simply rooted in a desire not to see an alleged abuser again.

“Just being in the same courtroom can be a pretty devastating thing for the victim, and I see the damage that it does,” Judge Bennett said.

Judge Bennett is hopeful that these bills will improve the plight of those victims by helping them to better maintain their independence in the face of abuse.

The full texts of the bills can be found at the following links:

SB1796/HB2033, Public Chapter 729: http://publications.tnsosfiles.com/acts/110/pub/pc0729.pdf

SB1735/HB1719, Public Chapter 586: http://publications.tnsosfiles.com/acts/110/pub/pc0586.pdf