By: Stephanie J. Gibbs
The COVID-19 shutdown has raised tensions in homes and concerns in the community about domestic violence. If you are accused of domestic violence and served with a Domestic Violence Order of Protection (called a DVPO, or 50B Order), here’s what you need to know:
First, domestic violence complaints are among the few “essential” or “emergency” hearings that North Carolina judges are currently hearing in person (versus by video), following an executive order from Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley that postponed most other hearings until after June 1, 2020. If you were served with a DVPO, you should plan to appear in court on the date written on the Notice of Hearing you received.
Second, a DVPO is a civil (non-criminal) order, but you could be arrested and charged with a serious misdemeanor if you disobey it. A DVPO also could affect your current and future employment, particularly if your job requires you to carry a firearm. And, entry of a DVPO may affect your right to custody and visitation with your child.
Third, if you are served with a DVPO, here are some steps you should – and should not – take:
- Stay calm. The DVPO you just received is an “ex parte” order, meaning it is a temporary order the judge entered after hearing only the Plaintiff’s (alleged victim’s) accusations. The judge has already scheduled a date, no later than 10 days from the date you were served, for you and the Plaintiff to appear in court, where you can tell your side of the story. At that hearing, the judge will decide whether to enter a “permanent” (one year) DVPO. You may wish to consult with an experienced attorney to learn your rights and obligations under the temporary “ex parte” DVPO, and to represent you in court during the hearing on a permanent DVPO.
- Cooperate with law enforcement. A law enforcement officer will serve you with a civil summons and the DVPO. If you are being removed from your residence, an officer will escort you through the residence so that you have a chance to pack up your clothing, toiletries and “tools of the trade” – items you need to do your job or run your business, such as a laptop computer, cell phone, and documents. Make sure you have all items you will need until your court hearing. After you have collected your items, you will be escorted from your residence and advised to have no contact with the Plaintiff.
- Surrender firearms. If you have firearms, you should show the law enforcement officer where you keep them, and you should immediately surrender your firearms to the officer if the DVPO requires that you not have access to firearms. If the DVPO requires you to surrender your firearms, it is likely you also are prohibited from purchasing or possessing a firearm while the order remains in effect.
- Do not contact the alleged victim. You should not contact the alleged victim, whether verbally or in writing. You should not send him or her any text messages, emails, photographs, social media posts, or voicemails. You should not leave notes, flowers, or any items at any location the DVPO prohibits you from visiting. You should not ask any third party (including your children) to contact the Plaintiff or to say anything to him or her on your behalf. If you violate the DVPO by contacting the Plaintiff, directly or indirectly, you could be arrested and criminally charged.
- Know your rights. You should learn your rights and understand the accusations against you. Carefully read the DVPO and accompanying Motion and Complaint to understand the accusations. If you do not understand the law (Chapter 50B of the North Carolina General Statutes), you should consult with an attorney experienced in defending against claims of domestic violence. Although many defendants do not file written Answers to DVPO Complaints, the statute states, “The summons issued pursuant to the Chapter shall require the defendant to answer within 10 days of the date of service.”
- Write out specifically what happened. If the alleged act of domestic violence was in your self-defense or defense of another person, such as a child, you may have a valid defense to the Plaintiff’s accusations. As soon as you can, you should list, in order, the exact events that occurred before, during and after the altercation. Doing this will help your attorney determine whether you have a valid claim for self-defense or defense of another. If so, your list will then help you and your lawyer better articulate to the judge what happened, and how it happened. Actions taken in self-defense are not defined by the law as “acts of domestic violence,” but there are substantial legal limitations to claiming self-defense.
- Cooperate with Child Protective Services if necessary. If a child was present or involved in the alleged act of domestic violence, an investigator from Child Protective Services may contact you for an interview, and may interview your child. You should make sure you have the social worker’s contact information so that you or your attorney is able to stay abreast of the investigation and outcome, and that you are kept apprised of any recommendations or steps taken in the investigation.
- Carefully consider the DVPO request. If you are asked to sign a Consent DVPO – that is, agree in a court order to have no contact with the Plaintiff – you should consider this request very carefully before signing. Once a DVPO is entered, whether by consent or otherwise, your name will be included in a registry of DVPO defendants used by law enforcement. An experienced attorney can provide you with advice as to whether defending yourself or agreeing to a Consent DVPO would be in your best legal interest.