Supreme Court lets private domestic violence prosecution stand
The U.S. Supreme Court today dismissed a case originating out of the District that challenged the ability of a private citizen to bring criminal contempt charges against someone else in a domestic violence case.
Split 5-4, with a strongly worded dissent by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court declined to interfere with a lower court decision that upheld guilty findings on criminal contempt charges against John Robertson, who was convicted in the District of violating a restraining order against him.
The case was particularly interesting because of its original circumstances:
In March 1999, Robertson violently assaulted his then-girlfriend Wykenna Watson, leading Watson to get a civil protective order against him that ordered him to stay away from her. Two months later, Robertson again attacked Watson, violating the protective order. But as part of a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Robertson agreed to plead guilty to the first attack if prosecutors were willing to dimiss charges for the second attack, which they did.
Watson, dissatisfied with the outcome, later that year herself filed criminal contempt charges against Robertson. After a two-day trial, Robertson was convicted, sentenced to an additional year in jail and ordered to pay Watson $10,000 in restitution.
Robertson appealed, arguing that any such charges against him were in violation of his plea agreement with the government, and could not be initiated by a private citizen. The Court of Appeals rejected that arguments, finding that the criminal contempt prosecution was brought as a private action and not in the “name and interest of the United States or any other governmental entity.”
In a case that garnered great interest from defense attorneys and those who work to fight domestic violence alike, the Supreme Court ultimately opted not to get involved, with a one-sentence opinion letting Watson’s victory stand and appearing to validate D.C. laws that allow victims to initiate such prosecutions regardless of plea agreements with the government.
Roberts’ 12-page dissent, joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy and Sotomayor, strongly argues for the issue to be revisited.
“The terrifying force of the criminal justice system may only be brought to bear against an individual by society as a whole, through a prosecution brought on behalf of the government,” Roberts wrote, arguing that changing that concept gives rise to “unsettling questions” about defendant rights. “Our entire criminal justice system is premised on the notion that a criminal prosecution pits the government against the governed, not one private citizen against another. The ruling below is a startling repudiation of that basic understanding.”
Watson’s victory in Robertson v. United States ex rel. Watson could be seen as a victory for domestic violence victims, as it solidifies their ability to fight back legally when violent partners violate a court’s protective orders. It could also complicate the way defendants look at criminal prosecutions, with the dissenting judges arguing that the case effectively takes the sword of justice away from “civilized society” and hands it back to private hands.
May 24, 2010; 2:30 PM ET
Categories: From the Courthouse , Josh White , The District
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