by Tim Baldwin
A recent video shows a Florida judge holding a complaining witness in an alleged domestic assault in contempt for not appearing at trial after she was served with court order to be present. The judge asked the woman if the allegations she made were true. She said, yes. The judge then asked, so why didn’t you appear for trial? The woman blamed anxiety for her failure to appear. Since the complaining witness failed to appear for trial, the prosecutor could not attempt to prove the charge; the case was dismissed consequently.
So, what reasons are common in domestic abuse cases for a complaining witness not to appear or not to participate in the prosecution?
Many domestic abuse cases originate because a complaining witness calls 911 during or after domestic arguments within a private home. Police arrive to investigate. Under the laws of many, if not all states, the police MUST arrest one of the parties. This normally translates into police arresting the male because of the difference in size and presumption that the male was the aggressor.
I recently handled a case that demonstrates this. There, the woman claimed that my client hit and pushed her without provocation in their home. Multiple police arrived on scene. The police arrested my client after talking to her. Later, at the booking station, one officer interviewed my client while another officer interviewed the complaining witness who maintained that he hit and pushed her without provocation. My client explained to the officer that the complaining witness stabbed him with a pair of scissors twice, once in the arm and once in the chest, and that when she attempted to attack him a third time, he defended himself.
He took off his shirt and showed him his arm to police. Behold, there were puncture marks on his chest and arm. She, on the other hand, had no signs of being assaulted. Guess what, the officer who interviewed the woman told the other officer to arrest my client even before he heard my client’s story. The police let her go free.
When the case was forwarded to the prosecutor, she continued to prosecute my client in spite of what the evidence proved. I tried to get the prosecutor to dismiss the case before trial, but she didn’t. So, we took the matter to a bench trial where I offered evidence of self-defense. Despite the complaining witness giving a story to the contrary (under oath), the judge found my client NOT GUILTY by reason of self-defense, thankfully. Justice was done.
However, in many domestic abuse cases, the physical evidence does not make it easy to determine or prove what actually happened, unlike the case I shared above, which allowed me to prove self-defense. Most cases are his-word-versus-her-word cases. This forces the defendant to choose either to enter into a plea agreement or face the risk of going to trial and being found guilty for something he did not do or for doing something much less than what the accuser claimed. In many cases, the defendant feels his best option is to accept a plea agreement instead of being subject to the maximum penalties by a judge at a sentencing hearing. He chooses the lesser of two evils.
So, why do complaining witnesses make unfounded or exaggerated claims? There are many. For example, the complaining witness:
- may be a drug addict and unable to perceive and recount reality accurately;
- is trying to gain an advantage over the defendant in a family law matter, such as child custody or support;
- is trying to put herself in a better position or light while being investigated by child protective services;
- feels substantiated only when playing the role of a victim;
- has post traumatic stress disorder from a previous abusive relationship and responds to any conflict by associating her current partner with the previous abusive partner;
- has a mental or personality disorder;
- has a hyper-sensitive personality and exaggerates conflicts;
- is trying to manipulate or dominate the defendant in their relationship;
- was the actual aggressor in the dispute and doesn’t want to face cross-examination or lie under oath;
- is being influenced by other friends or family members who have convinced her to rid herself of the spouse or partner; or
- is cheating on the spouse and is using the legal system to shift personal responsibility.
In these circumstances, it becomes critically important for the defendant to hire a defense attorney who knows what to look for and how to handle the allegations. This includes knowing how to interview witnesses, prepare applicable defense motions, find and analyze physical evidence and witness statements, work with a private investigator to learn underlying facts of the relationship and personalities at play, dig into the complaining witness’ mental and psychological history, learn of previous false reports made by the complaining witness, and try a jury trial.
Keep in mind: being accused of domestic abuse is no small thing, even if it is a misdemeanor. For example, under federal law, if a person is convicted of domestic abuse by assault, the person loses his federal firearms rights: a subsequent possession of a firearm with that conviction could be prosecuted as a federal felony. Too, being convicted of domestic abuse may prevent a person from being issued a concealed carry permit, hired at a security job, or issued travel or clearance permits. Any person charged with domestic abuse needs to hire the right defense attorney for the job.
For your criminal defense, email Tim Baldwin at firstname.lastname@example.org.