There was a day, not so many years ago, when fights between husband and wife were considered a private affair, of no concern of law enforcement or the public.
The problem with this philosophy is that it became an excuse for a mindset that anything goes in the name of spouse abuse, at least until one spouse ends up in the emergency room, or the morgue.
Enter Florida Statutes, Chapter 741.28-31, Domestic Violence.
The intent of this statute was that an abused spouse (let’s forget political correctness and acknowledge that in most cases, that is the wife) be protected from further abuse, even if she is afraid to press charges or regrets having called law enforcement.
This intent has given rise to the over-simplified notion that the law mandates that whenever either spouse calls the police, one spouse must be arrested. I have heard that many times from law enforcement officers, particularly less experienced ones.
More experienced officers have told me that while there is an
expectation that charges will be filed in most domestic violence complaints, Florida law is less
than crystal clear on this point,
and departmental policy — the orders of the sheriff or chief of police — generally set forth the precise rules.
In one place, FS 741.29 “requires” a warrantless arrest of whichever party the officer determines to be the “primary aggressor,” while another sentence in that same section lists arrest as the “preferred response.”
It is no wonder that confusion exists.
As neither an abuser nor an abusee in 49-plus years of marriage, I have no first-hand experience on which to draw.
But as a journalist for an even longer period of time, I have seen the domestic violence pendulum swing from “none of our business” to “somebody’s going to jail, no matter what.” Both extremes result in miscarriages of justice.
Domestic violence cases seldom make headlines if the spat is between Joe and Minnie Lunchbucket, the favorite constituents of legislators when discussing the impact of laws on the public.
But every now and then, the arrest of a public official or other prominent citizen brings the issue to the fore.
Such is the case of the arrest of former State Rep. Baxter Troutman this week for allegedly throwing a bedspread at his wife. Adding to the irony, the type of bedspread used in the alleged crime is called a “comforter.”
For my domestically challenged male readers, a comforter is even softer than a regular bedspread, sort of like mashed potatoes are to French fries.
Mrs. Troutman told the investigating officer that the comforter hit her in the face; her husband said it didn’t. A shoving match reportedly ensued.
Under the law, any unwanted touching, however minor, is defined as battery. One can batter with a comforter, or presumably a spoonful of mashed potatoes.
When this event occurs in a domestic setting, it is defined as domestic violence-battery, and if the accused batterer is a prominent citizen, his picture will appear in the paper in one of those orange jumpsuits that are only flattering if you have a complexion like NBC’s lovely Hoda Kotb.
As much as I may disapprove of angry propulsion of a bedspread
at one’s spouse (assuming that we are to deny the accused of his presumption of innocence, which
is pretty much the effect of
FS 741.28-31) I have to wonder
if the law has gone a bit too far.
We expect law enforcement officers to exercise independent judgment and discretion in far more serious cases.
But perhaps the law will only be changed if enough legislators get arrested for bedspread-throwing.
(S. L. Frisbie is retired. One of the more tragic cases of domestic violence he covered in his career was a man who murdered his wife while a law enforcement officer stood in the next room.
The officer’s defense: he wanted
to give the couple privacy as the
husband begged his wife not to
leave him. In the final analysis,
he was trying to do the compassionate thing. If you’re looking for an easy job, law enforcement probably is not for you.)