Experts in law enforcement told South Dakota legislators that domestic violence laws should protect dating couples, even if they don’t live together or have children.
That’s one of several issues facing the lawmakers on this summer’s Domestic Abuse Study Committee, formed after several reform attempts failed in the Legislature in recent years.
At Wednesday’s meeting in Pierre, several prosecutors and police leaders joined domestic violence advocates in saying that protections for dating couples. South Dakota’s current law says an assault is only domestic abuse if the couple is “living in the same household… have lived together, or… have a child together.”
"One of the shortcomings of our statute, I think, is the dating violence," said Brian Paulsen, Yankton’s police chief. By not counting domestic violence between a dating couple, he said, "I think we’re missing a significant number of cases of domestic violence."
Mark Vargo, the Pennington County state’s attorney, acknowledges that whether or not a couple is dating can be hard to determine. But he said he thinks it’s worth it to draw a line there.
"We are (asking) a difficult question of exactly where to draw the line," Vargo said. "My preference would be that it be somewhere around the dating. There is a difference between acquaintances and friends, and people who are dating."
A bill last year would have inserted language about couples in a “dating relationship.” But the House of Representatives amended the bill to refer to people living together.
An attempt at a compromise then failed when two lawmakers brought up new objections. Rep. Troy Heinert, D-Mission, and Rep. Mike Stevens, R-Yankton, argued South Dakota’s domestic violence laws go too far already at the March meeting. Heinert said people accused of domestic violence are “guilty until proven innocent,” while Stevens criticized provisions calling for the mandatory arrest of people accused of domestic violence.
Some of those issues arose again this week. Stevens, a member of the domestic abuse committee, suggested the state’s existing assault laws might be enough.
"It seems to me there are several subsections, both in simple assault and aggravated assault, that would certainly apply in domestic violence situations," said Stevens.
Others, including both members of the committee and outside experts, disagreed.
"Because of so many issues that are associated with domestic violence… there should be a distinct statute and that domestic violence tag on the assault," said Paulsen.
One option lawmakers are considering is making domestic violence its own offense, rather than a “tag” that gets applied to assault charges. Chief Deputy Attorney General Charles McGuigan said such a law might make interacting with federal domestic violence laws either. Those federal laws, including removing a person’s right to bear firearms if they’re convicted of domestic violence, have been an obstacle to past attempts to broaden domestic violence laws.
Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City, said that’s why lawmakers need to fine-tune domestic violence laws.
"We owe it to our citizens to get it right… because there’s a lot at stake, including losing your gun rights for life," Tieszen said. "We owe it to victims of domestic violence to make sure that the definition includes everyone who should be included in the protections that domestic violence laws provide."
McGuigan said a stand-alone domestic violence offense could make it easier for the federal government to determine who’s really been convicted of domestic violence.
"In my discussions with some of the officials at the federal level, they would prefer that… because they don’t have to sort through the simple assaults and disorderly conducts to determine if it’s really domestic violence, or a bar fight," McGuigan said.
But he said Attorney General Marty Jackley has no official position on the matter, and that it’s possible a stand-alone statute wouldn’t improve those issues.
Another dispute that has sunk past attempts at reform is coverage for same-sex couples. Tieszen and others have backed changes — such as gender-neutral language about “dating relationships” — that cover homosexual as well as heterosexual partners. But social conservatives in the House of Representatives have defeated those attempts.
Rep. Jim Bolin, R-Canton, focused on the issue of gender in Wednesday’s hearing. After receiving statistics from several witnesses that 90 percent or more of domestic violence cases in South Dakota involve men attacking women, Bolin urged lawmakers to focus on what was “possible” to “push… through the House.”
"I want clearly something that will address the vast, vast majority of the circumstances we deal with," Bolin said.
The Legislature’s domestic violence committee hasn’t adopted a final report. It will meet again on Oct. 21 to work come up with several proposals for possible language.