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New Bill Names Domestic Violence as a Separate Crime
Full Text of the Law | ACADV Summary of New Laws

Gov. Don Siegelman has signed a bill into law that names domestic violence as a separate crime, stiffens the penalties for those who repeatedly abuse their families, and clearly says that abuse in the home is a punishable crime in the state of Alabama.
"The message we are sending today to repeat offenders of this cowardly act of abusing women and children in the home is 'Get ready to serve your time," Siegelman said in signing the bill on April 25. "Domestic violence is serious business and I am proud to sign this legislation."

The bill puts Alabama as one of only 26 states in the nation that have made domestic violence a separate crime in the criminal code. It names domestic violence crimes as felonies and misdemeanors depending on the assault, creates mandatory jail time for those arrested more than once on domestic violence felonies, and requires the police officer to determine primary aggressor, thus reducing the incidence of dual arrest. The new legislation also includes dating and former dating relationships in the definition of domestic violence and emphasizes the importance of Protection from Abuse orders by doubling the sentences of those abusers who assault a victim who has a PFA.

Support for the Bill

Carol Gundlach, executive director of the Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence, thanked the governor for his "commitment to domestic violence legislation for the past 20 years, long before it was a popular issue." She pointed out that in addition to introducing this bill, he has formed Governor's Task Force on domestic violence and has supported legislation in the past to protect victims and their children.

The bill marks an important step in the work against domestic violence, Gundlach said, by clearly identifying domestic violence as a crime, creating a separate listing for it in the criminal code.

Representatives from each of the ACADV's 18 shelter member programs also were present to see the governor sign the bill. Board President Connie Hill, of the YWCA Family Violence Shelter in Birmingham, said it was an important moment to witness: "We have been working for years in the movement to increase awareness of that fact that domestic violence is a crime. To see the governor sign a bill proclaiming it as a crime gave us a real sense of accomplishment."

This bill labels the crime of domestic violence and tells batterers that it is not just the Coalition and friends of the movement who are saying it, but the entire state of Alabama, she said. Not only does this send a strong message to abusers that their actions are criminal, but it also reinforces our message to victims of domestic violence: "No one deserves to be abused."

District Attorney Ellen Brooks of Montgomery County said this was not a "feel good bill," but one that had enforcement power. "It is something every prosecutor who cares about victims of crime will stand behind, it is a public statement on record that to hurt someone in your home is wrong."

"We are saying this is a crime against the people, not just against one individual, and this will help take the burden off the victim," she said.

Sponsors of the legislation, Rep. Todd Greeson, and Sen. Sundra Escott-Russell noted the significance of its passage. Sen. Russell said the bill should encourage additional legislation, particularly in the area of date rape. "While the momentum is going, let's use this as springboard to keep working."

Important Features of the Bill

The Coalition notes strong law enforcement measures in the bill. The bill requires officers to identify and name a primary aggressor in domestic violence crimes. It states that if a law enforcement officer receives complaints of domestic violence from "two or more opposing persons, the officer shall evaluate each complaint separately to determine who was the primary aggressor."

"If the officer determines that one person was the primary physical aggressor, the officer need not arrest the other person alleged to have committed domestic violence," the bill states.

In determining "primary aggressor" the officer by law is to consider:

  • Prior complaints of domestic violence.
  • The relative severity of the injuries on each person.
  • The likelihood of future injury to each person.
  • Whether one of the persons acted in self-defense.

In recent years, the Coalition has noted an increase in the number of dual arrests in domestic violence crimes in Alabama. The result is that many battered women are forced into the criminal justice system as defendants, not receiving the services they need as victims, and creating critical problems in their lives by giving them a criminal record.

The bill also provides that the officer is not to discourage future calls, nor to base his or her decision to arrest on:

  • The specific consent or request of the victim.
  • The officer’s perception of the willingness of a victim or witness to the domestic violence to testify or otherwise participate in a judicial proceeding.

The bill also underscores the importance of victims obtaining Protection from Abuse orders. These civil court orders require abusers to stop threatening, assaulting or harrassing their victims. The law doubles the penalties for abusers when the victim has a PFA.

The Coalition also supports the new definition of domestic violence including dating and former dating relationships. "This year already we have seen several murders of women by boyfriends and former boyfriends. These women too need the full protection of the law from their abusers," Gundlach said. 

The domestic violence movement has worked hard over the last 30 years to emphasize that abuse in the home is a crime. In Alabama, the Coalition has worked through education and training of the medical professions, service agencies, and law enforcement personnel on the dynamics of domestic violence and the recognition of abuse as a crime. In 1989, the Coalition supported legislation that established warrantless arrest. This allows law enforcement officers to arrest an offender with "probable cause" that a domestic violence crime was committed, and takes the burden off the victim for signing a warrant against her abuser or asking for an arrest.

Listening to victims

Siegelman said he first became interested in the issue of domestic violence as attorney general in 1986 when he listened to Rhonda Hutto, a battered wife, testify to her life with an abusive husband, whom she divorced. Two months later, her ex-husband murdered her. As a result of that tragedy, Siegelman worked to increase funding for domestic violence shelters and to get legislation giving police officers the right to arrest offenders on probable cause.

"That was my indoctrination into this long and arduous process leading us to what we are doing today," he said.

Siegelman also said he had visited Hope Place, an ACADV member shelter program in Huntsville. After touring the facility and speaking with some of the women, he went out to the playground and talked to the children. One child, sitting on a swing, reminded him of his own daughter. He asked her why she was there. "Because my daddy can't find us here and hurt us," she said

"Here is a young girl who should have been preparing for the prom," he said, "who was afraid to go outside, afraid of the place where she should be most safe-- her own home."

These experiences were his "baptism" in the domestic violence movement, he said.

Full Text of Domestic Violence as a Crime Law
ACADV Summary of New Laws

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Domestic Violence Bill: "Creating the Crime Category of Domestic Violence"
This bill creates a crime of domestic violence in the criminal code, enhances the penalty for the crime, makes technical changes in the definition of domestic violence and requires police officers to determine the primary aggressor when making domestic violence arrests.

The bill defines the crime in these categories:

Domestic violence in the first degree is a class A felony.
The crime occurs when: The defendant commits the crime of assault in the first degree The defendant is the current or former spouse, parent, child, a person with whom the victim has a child in common, a present or former household member, or a person who has or had a dating or engagement relationship with the victim.
The arrest occurs without a warrant.

The penalty: The second or subsequent conviction of domestic violence in the first degree mandates a minimum of one year in prison without consideration of parole or time reduction.

Domestic violence second degree-class B felony.
The crime occurs when: The defendant commits the crime of assault in the second degree. The defendant has a relationship described as above, with the victim.

The penalty: The second or subsequent conviction mandates the defendant serve a minimum of six months in jail without consideration of probation, parole or reduction of crime.

Domestic violence third degree class A misdemeanor
The crime occurs when: The defendant commits a crime of assault in the third degree, reckless endangerment, criminal coercion or harassment. The defendant has a relationship described as above, with the victim.

The penalty: Second or subsequent conviction, the defendant shall serve a minimum of 48 hours in jail without consideration of reduction of time.

All penalties are doubled when the defendant violates a protection order the second or subsequent time.

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