Victims of domestic violence would enjoy stronger legal protections under legislation passed Thursday by the House of Delegates.
House members voted overwhelmingly for a trio of bills proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley that would make it easier for a domestic violence victim to get a protective order from a court, expand the circumstances under which such orders could be issued and impose an extra penalty of up to five years for domestic violence in the presence of children.
Versions of the bills have passed the Senate. Both chambers must pass the legislation in identical form before passage becomes final.
Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown joined legislative leaders and advocates against domestic violence at a news conference after the House vote, declaring that "we're a step closer to making our state safer."
Brown said the most significant bill, which would make it easier for victims to get protective orders, has been a long time coming. Similar bills have failed to pass the General Assembly four times over the past nine years, he noted. The other 49 states all have lower standards of proof.
"These are difficult issues," Brown said. "Tough stuff doesn't happen overnight."
He said the state has made progress elsewhere in the meantime, working to get guns out of the hands of abusers and establishing a network of hospital-based screening centers, among other measures.
Maryland is the only state to require "clear and convincing" evidence before a court may issue a protective order. Most others allow orders to be issued based on a lesser "preponderance" of evidence.
Del. Joseph Vallario Jr., the Prince George's County Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said that decades ago, Maryland was in the forefront of states in providing for shorter-term peace orders to prevent domestic violence.
But for protective orders, which can require a spouse or partner to vacate a home for a year or more, lawmakers agonized over how much evidence of abuse an alleged victim would have to produce. Some lawmakers feared lowering the standard might unjustly banish some spouses or partners from their homes.
"It was a question of balancing victim's rights and due process," added Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat who is vice chair of the committee.
Hearings on petitions for protective orders often are held on short notice, without lawyers or time to round up many witnesses, making it difficult for victims to make their case. In the past year 1,700 petitioners claiming abuse were denied, said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the Senate version of the bill.
"It's mostly 'he-said, she-said,' " said Dorothy Lennig, a lawyer with the House of Ruth, which advocates for victims of domestic violence. "The judge doesn't have a lot to go on."
Authorities counted 17,615 domestic violence crimes reported in Maryland in 2012.
"It's a great day," said Del. Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore city Democrat and assistant state's attorney whom advocates credited with helping round up support for the legislation. "It's going to change people's lives."