Ada County Courthouse

The Ada County Courthouse

Efforts to broaden Idaho's protections against stalking and harassment drew overwhelming legislative support in 2016. But as courts and law enforcement struggle with the new breadth of civil protection orders, some suggest changes be made to the 2-year-old law.

Senate Bill 1373 was spurred by the 2015 shooting of Makaela Zabel-Gravatt. The hairdresser was injured when shot by her former client, 36-year-old Christopher Wirfs, who had been stalking and harassing her for months. She sought a civil protection order but was denied. Wirfs was just an acquaintance, which didn't meet the law's threshold at the time.

Idaho Sen. Grant Burgoyne, an attorney from Boise, sponsored the 2016 bill with an aim to protect other people in such cases. The bill opened the door for people to file protection orders against people even if they weren't relatives, romantic partners or parents of a shared child, as limited by the previous law.

STRAIN ON RESOURCES

Since its passage, civil order protections have spiked in the Treasure Valley. Ada and Canyon County officials agree the increase is linked to the 2016 legislation.

The number of civil protection orders issued in Ada County doubled from 2016 to 2017, jumping from 996 to 1,912. Canyon County saw an 11 percent increase, from 1,783 to 1,974. 

The expansion of civil protection orders has increased workloads for cops and courts alike.

Before summer 2017, Andrew Ellis was the only magistrate judge in Ada County presiding over civil protection order hearings. Since then, three more judges have had to dedicate nearly an entire day out of their week to hear the cases. 

Ellis, who supports the orders as a protective measure, estimated he handled about 15 cases a week before 2017. The magistrates now hear between 35 and 40 — and sometimes as many as 60 — in an average week.

The increase also poses a challenge for civil deputies, who must deliver a copy of the order to the alleged abuser. The order doesn't take effect until it's delivered.

Civil deputies, whose main job is serving papers, have enlisted the help of patrol deputies to get all of the orders served. In Canyon County, about 50 percent of orders are served by patrol deputies, according to county records, which can take time away from proactive policing.

Because civil protection orders are meant to protect people from violence, they often take priority over other papers needing served, Canyon County Sheriff’s Office Lt. David Schorzman said.

Anecdotally, some protection orders don’t seem to meet the criteria, Schorzman said. But judges don’t have the full story and are reluctant to not issue the order, he said, leading some to wonder if the orders are being used for purposes they aren’t intended for.

WEIGHING EFFICIENCY, SAFETY

As law enforcement grapples with the increase in civil protection orders, efforts to amend the legislation have surfaced. Annie Hightower, director of law and policy for the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, hopes that the court system does not prioritize efficiency over safety.

“There may be a way to modify the language to narrow it down a bit,” Hightower said. “But I would still be concerned with keeping language broad enough so that people that need safety can seek safety through this.”

Stalking descriptions are especially difficult to narrow since it is a pattern of behavior over time.

Ellis, the magistrate, said there is a great deal of research linking stalking to violence. Both Burgoyne and Ellis acknowledged the need for the courts to protect people.

But they also both believe the new law has, in some ways, widened the net too much. They cited the section of the law written to address “telephone harassment.”

Previously, no matter how many calls or text messages a person sent to another person, the victim could not secure legal protection unless the suspect made a threat of physical violence.

Now, a person can ask for legal protection if they receive a high volume of text messages from one person, regardless of what those text messages say.

“A number of those have been absolutely legitimate and involve individuals who engage in terrifying behavior,” Ellis said. “And then there’s been some that are not as legitimate.”

Burgoyne said he’s heard the same thing from other Ada court employees, burdened by the increase in civil protection order filings.

Many of those protection orders, while initially issued, are not sustained after a mandatory waiting period.

“They’re taking up a lot of the courts’ time ... for the courts to dismiss,” Burgoyne said. “The situation that’s being laid out on its face doesn’t rise to the level of a protection order.” 

Because of that, Burgoyne said he intends to amend the statute in the upcoming legislative session. He plans to work with stakeholders to find a way to do that and still offer victims the protection they need from the courts.

Ellis agreed.

“I don’t question for a moment the intent behind the statute,” he said. “We need (CPOs) and we need to allow people those protections. My frustration is ... there are times members of the public abuse this resource.”

He also said he hoped his voicing that opinion — and his acknowledgment of occasional less-than-legitimate protection orders — does not discourage people from filing protection orders if they feel in danger.

“This is why we are here,” he said. “We are here to offer this resource and keep people safe.”

Riley Bunch is the night digital reporter for the Idaho Press. Reach her at 208-465-8169 or follow @rebunch8 on Twitter.

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