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Law described as monster

A new law intended to protect battered women has created confusion of monster proportions in Florida's courts, the state Supreme Court said Wednesday.

"The new legislation has created an administrative Frankenstein," Justice Ben Overton wrote in a unanimous order.

Before July, it wasn't a crime to violate court orders to stay away from domestic violence victims. Judges, however, could use their contempt powers to punish violators by throwing them in jail for five months and 29 days.

Lawmakers decided this spring such violations should be crimes and violators should face misdemeanor charges. That means judges no longer can use contempt power to punish violators.

No one has challenged the new law. But Florida's high court issued a ruling to "clarify" issues related to the operation of state courts' family law divisions.

The court noted that lawmakers "may have had the best of intentions in criminalizing domestic violence injunction violations."

But, Overton wrote, the 1994 law created several administrative problems. For instance, it contradicts a 1990 law directing that all family issues be handled by judges in family law divisions.

Also, not all violations of domestic injunctions involve physical abuse, the court noted. Some provide for financial support and outline visitation.

That's where the "administrative Frankenstein" starts operating in the view of the high court.

It could lead to circuit court judges who issue injunctions finding themselves called as witnesses in county court criminal proceedings, the high court warned.

"We recognize the extreme importance of having domestic violence issues addressed in an expeditious, efficient and deliberative manner," Overton wrote. "We do not want these important issues to become bogged down in an administrative morass."

A panel of experts called by Gov. Lawton Chiles to study the issue of domestic violence had recommended to the Legislature that injunction violations be criminalized.

Robin Hassler, executive director of the Governor's Task Force on Domestic Violence, said she was surprised and confused by Wednesday's ruling.

"The victims' well-being should take precedence over the administrative convenience of the court," Hassler said.