Two days before Christmas, Ms. Johnson* was relaxing on her sofa waiting for her children and grandchildren to come to her home for a family dinner. Her rest was broken by the sound of shattering glass. She turned toward her kitchen, and a cinderblock sat in the middle of her linoleum floor. Shards of glass sprinkled the meal simmering on the stove; a chill air crept though her kitchen window. A feeling of nightmare pierced Ms. Johnson. She knew who had done this—her ex-boyfriend.
Destruction of property like that experienced by my client, Ms. Johnson, is a common form of emotional and financial abuse. It is one way that an abuser can exert control over a victim, often as a part of a larger pattern of violence. An abuser may destroy property not only to harm a victim, but to isolate that victim as well. The destruction of a phone can prevent a victim from contacting family members and law enforcement. Damage to a car can eliminate a victim’s ability to get to work or a shelter. In D.C., these constitute criminal acts of malicious destruction of property. D.C. Code § 22-303.
One tool victims can use to end abuse is a Civil Protection Order, available under D.C.’s Intrafamily Offenses Act. Generally, the Act requires a person to show that he or she has been the victim of a “criminal offense that is committed or threatened to be committed by an offender upon a person.” This presents a problem for victims of malicious destruction of property. Is the offense of malicious destruction of property a crime committed “upon a person”? And more broadly, can such an offense be the basis for a CPO?
The answer to both questions is yes. Destruction of property can be the sole basis for a Civil Protection Order, even in the absence of physical abuse. Domestic violence courts rarely publish opinions. However, fortunately, a recent decision written by Judge Todd E. Edelman of the D.C. Superior Court, Small v. Cannady 142 Daily Wash. Law Rep. 0701 (March 26, 2014) (subscription required), helps to clarify the law when it comes to the destruction of property in Civil Protection Order cases. The Court consolidated three cases in which an abuse victim requested a CPO, partly or entirely, because the abuser destroyed or damaged property. The Court clarifies that destruction of property can indeed be considered a crime upon a person.
The Court in Small acknowledges the common link between domestic violence and destruction of property. In cases of domestic violence, destruction of property targets the victim, not merely the property, and constitutes an attempt to exert control over the victim. Destruction of property can also be a precursor to violence or an unspoken threat. This reading of the law recognizes the Intrafamily Offenses Act’s underlying purpose—“to protect victims of family abuse from both acts and threats of violence.” Robinson v. Robinson, 886 A.2d 78 (2005).
Legal Aid is proud to have represented one of the three abuse survivors in the consolidated cases. This recent development clarifies an important issue in domestic violence law. It will help ensure that when domestic violence survivors seek protection from this kind of abuse, they will be able to find it in our courts.
*This name has been changed to protect the identity of the survivor.