In movies and TV shows, when a victim decides not to press charges or testify against their attacker, the charges are almost always dropped. At the Canyon County Prosecutor’s Office, however, that’s not always the case.
The primary goal of special prosecutor Monica Morrison is to prevent domestic violence cases from becoming murder cases.
And sometimes that means going forward with a case without cooperation from the victim at all, as long as prosecutors believe the case can be proven without the victim’s testimony.
“I think we’ve really made steps to make sure we aren’t reducing (the charges on) these (more lethal) cases, because we don’t want to later be prosecuting the murder of these victims,” Morrison told the Idaho Press-Tribune.
Beyond that primary goal, the Prosecutor’s Office, Sheriff’s Office and 3rd District Court all share common objectives: ensure the safety of victims while holding abusers accountable for their actions.
— Charlotte Wiemerslage, local editor
When special prosecutor Monica Morrison sits down with a victim to talk about a case, one of the first thoughts on her mind is how she can help prevent the abusive situation from escalating to a homicide.
Morrison, Canyon County's special prosecutor for domestic violence, said her other paramount concern is treating the victim with respect and creating an open environment.
“They're used to have their offenders manipulate them, lie to them, so I try and be as up front and straight with them as possible, and emphasize that even though you may not agree with how I decide to handle the case, this is an open forum for you to be honest about your thoughts and feelings,” Morrison said. “You may not understand what they're going through, you may not understand why they keep going back, you may not understand anything about their lifestyle, but be respectful. And don't judge them.”
Morrison spent four years in the Ada County Prosecutor's Office and moved to the Canyon County side last year. She handles many of the cases in Caldwell's special court for domestic violence, where many of the misdemeanor charges are handled.
Under Idaho Statutes, the victim has certain rights during a case, and Morrison informs them of those rights. But she also tries to find out what other “stressors” might be occurring in the home, such as untreated substance abuse problems, recent job loss or other issues.
Often, victims want charges reduced or dropped, but that doesn't always mean it will happen. Sometimes that means going forward with a case without cooperation from the victims at all, as long as prosecutors believe the case can be proven without the victim's testimony.
“I think we've really made steps to make sure we aren't reducing these (more lethal) cases because we don't want to later be prosecuting the murder of these victims,” Morrison said.
For charges to fall under domestic battery, the parties involved must be married, formerly married, have a child in common or share the same household. If the battery results in a traumatic injury, it falls under a misdemeanor offense — with traumatic injury, it becomes a felony.
The enhancements that come with domestic battery charges over a standard battery case are helpful, Morrison said. Additional penalties of injury to a child can be paired with a domestic battery if a child witnessed the abuse or was abused in the incident. A domestic battery conviction also prohibits the offender from possessing firearms, which addresses lethality concerns.
Offenders are also usually ordered to obtain a domestic violence evaluation, which is more applicable to the situation than anger management because it “addresses all the power and control elements” at play.
“I also think a lot of times, whether it's applying for jobs or someone running your criminal history, I think a battery could be anything,” Morrison said. “But you see a domestic battery, and I think it's just perceived differently.”
Training efforts have ramped up around Canyon County when it comes to domestic violence as well. Many steps have been taken to educate law enforcement officers and the community at large about the issue. And while Idaho might not be at the forefront with its domestic violence laws, Morrison said she thinks it is ahead of some other states based on her experience.
“We do have provisions for enhancement not just because of traumatic injury, but also if you have a certain number of prior convictions within a certain time, it's a felony — and I don't think all states have that,” she said.
Idaho also has more progressive laws on stalking than some, though stalking is still difficult to prove and prosecute. But it is a felony if the person is found guilty, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
CIVIL PROTECTION ORDERS
Most people know what a restraining order is and what it does, requiring a certain person to stay a specific distance away at all times after some dispute or incident has occurred between the two parties.
What's probably less familiar is a no contact order or protection order. Aleshea Boals, Canyon County Sheriff's Office victim/witness coordinator, said people often confuse the three legal terms.
A protection order is a purely civil proceeding, while a no contact order is administered after a crime has been committed, ranging from assault to homicide, when the accused is ordered to stay away from the family of the victim. Those who want a protection order have to apply for one at the Sheriff's Office, but anyone who is being abused can qualify for one, regardless of living situation.
“Often with victims where we have made an arrest, I'll have them do both, because let's say the charges get dropped on a technicality,” Boals said. “I want the victim to have a protection order as well, because it's much more specific.”
Because a protection order is a civil matter, the victim has to apply for one, which Boals said can be an intimidating process. If the person claims some sort of abuse is going on, she said they will probably be granted the order that day, but the victim has to come back to court 10-14 days later for a hearing — in which they often represent themselves. Boals does her best to help them prepare and answer questions.
Depending on the situation, victims can be thrilled or infuriated by a no contact order, such as instances where the victim is financially dependent on the abuser. If the victim wants the order lifted, both of the parties involved can attend a five-week “Positive Safety Planning Class” at Hope's Door or Valley Crisis, and the judge determines whether to lift it at the end of that class.
In some cases, Boals has come across confusion when it comes to what services are available if the victim or abuser is an illegal immigrant. A person charged with a crime may also face additional charges for being undocumented, but Boals said a victim should not be afraid to come forward for that reason.
Regardless of the person's gender, race, socioeconomic status or any other factors, Boals said she just wants to try to get help for families in the community who need it — but many times it's difficult to tell which ones need it more than others.
“It's hard, because I've had two victims that have been killed, and it is in your head all the time and you don't know,” she said. “... There is no rhyme or reason to domestic violence.”
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE COURT
The people who come before Magistrate Jerold W. Lee in the Canyon County courthouse for domestic violence court get a lot of special attention from him, but there are no special drawings for prizes or candy bar treats. The ultimate reward is when they don't have to come back to see him anymore.
The domestic violence court in Caldwell officially started taking cases in February. Before that, Lee was presiding over the same court in Nampa. That court was operational from 2010 until around July last year, when he moved his chambers to Caldwell.
Lee said the court mostly handles cases from the county prosecutor's office rather than the city cases, as well as any felonies that have been reduced to misdemeanor charges.
“I like to call the domestic violence court an accountability court,” Lee said.
It is heavy on supervision and intensive probation and treatment efforts, paired with extensive efforts on Lee's part to encourage abusers to change. He tries to get them to use resources available and recognize that what they have done is wrong, even if that message doesn't always resonate.
“I try to explain it in such a way that they understand it's what's inside them,” he said. “And it's okay. Let's get it challenged. You're not the only one, and there are solutions.”
Lee said he believes the defendants appreciate that he engages with them, and the personal attention can be very helpful, but it's still a challenging job.
“I think the best thing that I can do for the people in front of me is to help them understand that there are consequences to decision making,” he said.