Got a domestic issue? Take it to court

ST. PETERSBURG — Two women try to navigate the end of a friendship. A man needs help getting a homeless woman and her four kids out of his house. A woman is accused of ramming her Camry into her ex-husband's new love.

It's all happening in domestic violence court, where tearful, battered spouses are no longer the whole story.

Every year, thousands of people in all kinds of relationships wind their way here to settle differences, turning the tribunal into a People's Court smorgasbord of everyday disputes.

You can see the trend in the numbers. Accusations by domestic partners in Pinellas County have declined slightly, while petitions by unrelated people have risen 150 percent in the past decade. Hillsborough County has also seen a rise in cases filed by unrelated people.

Many of these cases are urgent and important. But spend a few days in domestic violence court and you'll wonder whether cooler heads and common sense could have given the judge a day off.

"More people think this is the answer, that it's the panacea to society's problems," said Pinellas County Judge Henry J. Andringa. "And often it's not the right vehicle to answer their problems."

• • •

On a recent Wednesday, Mary Jo Rohr is trying to explain why she needs protection from Alisha Ann Canner, with whom she once shared a love of cats. The friendship between the former neighbors dissolved more than a year ago for reasons neither woman will share. Now Rohr says Canner won't leave her alone.

Rohr, 39, of Pinellas Park, finds it hard to reduce a year's worth of e-mails, calls and gifts left on her doorstep into a few words for the judge. Lately, Canner has been showing up at the bar where Rohr's husband plays in a band.

"One week, I got 20 e-mails and I don't know how many calls," Rohr says.

The case files are filled with copies of e-mails from Canner to Rohr. "I feel like my life is on hold for you right now," Canner wrote. "If you are no longer, then I have no future, only a past."

The judge turns to Canner. She's 36, dressed in white jeans. A lawyer stands by her side.

"My client doesn't agree," Keith Meyer says. "She is not stalking the petitioner … my client has no intention of associating with the petitioner."

Meyer points out that Canner hasn't gone to Rohr's home in a few months, and Rohr has no right to keep Canner from the bar.

Rohr tries again: "She continues to try to hug me and wants to be friends with me, and all I want is for her to leave me alone."

The whole dispute has the feel of something that might once have been resolved with a long, honest talk over coffee, but here it is, in the public courts, in the hands of a judge.

To give Rohr the injunction, the judge has to believe that Canner performed two or more acts of violence against Rohr.

"I don't think this rises to the level of repeat violence," Judge Andringa says. "I'm hoping you'll leave each other alone, though."

Canner leaves the courtroom, a smile on her face.

"I did blame myself for this. But you know what? I'm a victim here, not her," she says. "She hurt me really bad."

Rohr is frustrated. "I think you shouldn't have to get to violence to get an injunction," she says. "I absolutely consider myself a victim. My life is forever changed by this and in my mind this was the only place I could turn."

• • •

Every month in Pinellas County, judges hear about 500 cases in domestic violence court. Hillsborough judges handle about 650.

If an injunction is granted, the target of the complaint must not come closer than 500 feet of the petitioner's home or job. The possible consequences for a violation: a first-degree misdemeanor and up to a year in jail.

People filing for injunctions are free to make any accusation they want. People in the system say that's good and bad.

"It's a valuable tool and it was set up for a good reason," said Meyer, who handles domestic injunction cases. "But it can be misused to attack someone for a bogus thing they never did."

But the system is being manipulated in new ways now. Hillsborough County Judge Raul Palomino said he is seeing more people try to use an injunction in place of an eviction, which is a more complicated process.

A man who opened his St. Petersburg home to a homeless woman and her four kids fought to get an injunction recently to force her to leave. He says she hit him in the head with a backpack and threatened his life.

"I fear for my life," Ross P. Webster Jr. says.

It's not enough. Case dismissed.

Judges must try to discern the truth about these complicated relationships in cattlelike calls, hearings in which they see case after case. Domestic and dating violence petitions require only one act of violence. Repeat violence, the type of injunction sought by unrelated people, requires two.

"A lot of times people get mad at me and they call me names because I won't grant it," Palomino said. "They tell me, 'The cops arrested him, he punched me in the face.' Okay, but he only committed one act of violence, not two."

More often than not, the behavior judges hear about doesn't rise to the level of violence. It's two high school girls fighting over a boy in school. It's two older women who live next door to each other and one is angry because the other squirted her with a water hose.

"I try to explain that bad behavior or annoying behavior is not necessarily violence," Palomino said.

It costs nothing to file an injunction petition, but Palomino thinks the Legislature should change it so that those seeking repeat violence injunctions must pay. It might eliminate frivolous claims.

• • •

Two women face off in Clearwater's domestic violence court. Both are blonds. One wears a 3.5-carat diamond ring. The other used to.

"There's a lot of information in here for me to grasp," says Judge Dorothy L. Vaccaro, perusing a lavender file.

She gazes at Gail Briggs, who plans to marry orthopedic surgeon Andrew Messer. Briggs seeks protection from Messer's former wife, Katherine Messer.

On March 17, Katherine Messer rammed her Camry into Briggs' Lexus, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. Briggs was standing in front of it and jumped out of the way, but Messer's children and Briggs' daughter were inside at the time.

Messer, 44, was charged with four counts of child abuse, aggravated assault with a motor vehicle and criminal mischief. Briggs' injunction petition also claims Messer had been drinking that day.

Now Messer stands in court meekly, wearing a cream dress and matching jacket. Her lawyer, Victoria Jones, asks for a continuance.

Briggs, who came without a lawyer, protests. "Your honor, I'm the victim here. I was the one hit with the car. I have witnesses who saw her try to hit me three times with the car."

Vaccaro grants the continuance. The criminal charges already carry a no-contact order, she notes. She urges Briggs to bring her witnesses to the courtroom at the next hearing in July.

Briggs interrupts. Her witnesses are the children. She doesn't want them to testify. "She admitted she did it on purpose," Briggs says.

"If you want to talk over me, that's fine," Vaccaro says. "I feel like you're in over your head. You need to seek a lawyer to find out what you need to do to prove it."

• • •

Curtina Bell rides into the St. Petersburg courtroom with a swagger, her mother in tow. She's 30. She is dressed in jeans and has thick fake red lashes and gold teeth. The tattoo of teardrops beneath her left eye is covered with makeup.

She has been here before. Twenty-four times, to be exact. Half, she filed. The other half were filed against her.

The injunction petitions speak of a woman who has been bitten, choked and chased down by cars, who has had sticks and bricks and beer bottles thrown at her, and who has repeatedly been threatened with death. They also tell of a woman who, if others are to be believed, has kicked a boyfriend in the genitals, come after his girlfriend, chased someone else with a car, and thrown beer bottles at a former beau's pregnant girlfriend.

On this day, Bell is accusing a teenage relative of pushing her down and threatening to kill her.

Bell tells the judge that she fears for her life. The teen says she pushed him. Bell's aunt tells the judge that Bell is bi­polar and out of control because of the death of her grandmother. The funeral was yesterday.

"Adults need to be adults," says County Judge Lorraine M. Kelly. "You don't need a piece of paper to tell you that."

"He's jumping on me, your honor," Bell tries one more time. "He's raising sand in church."

"Ms. Bell, I know you're unhappy," Kelly responds. "But I don't find an immediate threat of harm or danger here."

This petition goes the way of all but a handful of the 24 sought injunctions: It's dismissed.

"It's hard for me to get any kind of help," Bell says. "I think they should listen a little more when people cry out for help."

A week later, Bell's aunt and the teenager file separate injunction petitions against her, claiming she slapped the teen or pointed a gun at him. Last week, those were dismissed too.

• • •

The Judge Judy episodes can sometimes overshadow the real tragedies. In about two-thirds of the cases, families are breaking, spouses are living in fear.

Domestic violence offenses — fights between partners and family members who live together — have declined 32 percent statewide and more than 20 percent in local jurisdictions.

Domestic violence experts don't know why. Perhaps, they say, more people are aware of their options.

"I think women are getting safe sooner," said Bonnie Rosendale, 53, director of community and legal outreach for a center fighting domestic violence, Community Action Stops Abuse. "Ten years ago, people didn't know about domestic violence centers."

On a recent domestic violence court calendar, family members accused each other of choking, punching and pushing the other out of cars.

A 25-year-old firefighter gave up parental rights to his 3-month-old baby because he worried his escalating fights with the child's mother might ruin his career.

One woman cried in the hallway because she arrived late and her hearing was dismissed. She had filed the injunction petition the week before but her boyfriend had come after her again and she landed in the hospital.

Tears streaming down her face, the 27-year-old held her head in her hands. "I need a shot right now," she said. "I need tequila." Then she got up and headed down to the Pinellas clerk's office to file for another injunction.

Times researchers Connie Humburg, Shirl Kennedy and Caryn Baird contributed to this story, along with Times staff writer Jackie Alexander. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8640.

>>fast facts

About domestic violence

Domestic violence offenses — between partners and family members who live together — have declined 32 percent statewide and 22 percent in Pinellas County during the past decade. Offenses are down 23 percent in Hernando County, 30 percent in Hillsborough and 21 percent in Pasco.

In Pinellas, 33 percent fewer domestic violence criminal cases are being referred to the State Attorney's Office compared with 10 years ago, and so fewer are being prosecuted.

Sources: Clerks offices in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties; nondomestic (other) totals include repeat violence, dating violence and sexual violence injunctions.

Injunctions

PinellasHillsborough
DomesticOtherDomesticOther
20033,6421,0364,7931,980
20043,3154,6674,8442,411
20053,6121,309 4,9972,432
20063,5301,5754,9622,534
20073,5201,7985,1912,641

Got a domestic issue? Take it to court 06/14/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 16, 2008 11:22am]

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