When I was a prosecutor handling domestic violence cases, a young woman charged with domestic violence was representing herself and came into court to speak with me. In a polite, slightly pleading tone, she said, “I don’t know why I’m here. I ain’t never domestic violenced no one!” Well, according to Utah law, she had— and chances are, you have too.
She explained that she had gotten into a yelling match with her 17-year-old brother and he threw his drink at her. She chased him to his bedroom where he shut the door. The bedroom door wasn’t very strong and when she hit it with her shoulder, the wood cracked and she made a big dent the size of her shoulder. He didn’t open the door, so she called him some names and walked away. The neighbors heard the yelling and banging and called the police. The police came, asked what happened, and charged the woman with domestic violence assault and criminal mischief (destruction of property).
Most people don’t know that many people are charged with domestic violence in Utah for doing things that aren’t typically seen as domestic violence or domestic abuse. In Utah, a crime is considered “domestic violence” when the underlying crime involves “cohabitants” and includes violence, a threat of violence, an attempt to commit violence, property destruction, or even sometimes disorderly conduct. Utah law defines a cohabitant as anyone 16 years of age or older who:
• is or was a spouse to the other person,
• resides or has resided in the same residence as the other person,
• is related by blood or marriage to the other person,
• has one or more children in common with the other person,
• is living as if a spouse of the other person, or
• is the biological parent of the other person’s unborn child.
This means brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, roommates, former roommates, former roommates’ friends who lived in your apartment for a month, etc., etc.
In addition to that, each of the underlying crimes is interpreted quite broadly. If you live in Utah, criminal mischief (destruction of property), includes destroying any property that you’ve acquired with your spouse because technically you own the property together. So even if your wife has never touched your cordless drill, but you throw it out the window and break it during an argument…yep, Domestic Violence Criminal Mischief, a class B misdemeanor.
To prove my point, if you have ever done any of the following in Utah, you have committed domestic violence:
Needless to say, a good number of country music videos involving betrayed women, if they took place in Utah, would be prime candidates for criminal charges. Not to mention shows like I Love Lucy, Everybody Loves Raymond, or any other show where one lover slaps the other (technically only if they’ve lived together or are married).
So, when you were 18, and you got in a fight with your brother or roommate or cousin, if he/she was 16 or older, you committed domestic violence. Or if you ever got into an argument with your spouse and then went outside and broke your pink lawn flamingo because you were mad, you have “domestic violenced” someone.
I’ve often heard that too many criminals get off on technicalities. But in my experience, I think more people get charged or convicted on technicalities than get their cases dismissed. The prosecutor will sometimes say, “I don’t write the laws, my job is to enforce them.” And on the flip side, legislators will say, “We can’t write perfect laws, but prosecutors and judges can discern which cases should go forward.” This means many people who shouldn’t be in the criminal justice system have their lives turned upside down and face stiff penalties because their actions technically meet the definition of domestic violence.
There are many situations where domestic abuse really does occur, and sometimes the law is the best protection for the victims of that abuse. But the unfortunate result of having domestic violence laws that are too strict and too broad is that we end up spending too much time and too many resources litigating the trivial cases, rather than focusing on the cases where the law truly needs to intervene.