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Clinch case highlights use of orders of protection

Sunday, December 16, 2007 | 8:48 p.m. CST; updated 10:02 a.m. CDT, Friday, October 16, 2009

COLUMBIA — Jeremy Bohannon of Rocheport was at a Columbia McDonald’s for his regularly scheduled visit with his three children on Sunday, Sept. 2. While in the process of divorcing his wife, Amanda Clinch, he had been given the right to two supervised visits each week with his children.

Shortly after arriving at the McDonald’s that evening, William Clinch, Amanda’s brother, confronted Bohannon in the parking lot. The children were not there and neither was Amanda Clinch.

Then, according to court documents filed in Boone County Circuit Court, Clinch pulled out a semi-automatic handgun and shot Bohannon, chasing him across the parking lot.

Bohannon, 32, was taken to a local hospital, where he was later pronounced dead from wounds to the head and leg.

Clinch, 37, was arrested at the scene by Columbia police and later charged with first-degree murder and armed criminal action. He was indicted Friday by a Boone County grand jury and is scheduled for arraignment today.

William Clinch, Amanda Clinch and their father, Dennis Clinch, had all filed orders of protection against Bohannon since 2006. Detailing threats of violence, the family said Bohannon was a threat to their well-being and wanted to keep him away.

But Sheriff Charles Polson of Howard County, where Jeremy Bohannon and Amanda Clinch lived when they were a couple, said Amanda Clinch’s family would call 911 often “trying to get him into trouble,” complaining that Bohannon was violating their orders of protection.

“The man who shot him was more obsessed with getting him in trouble than the wife was,” Polson said in an interview. “Clinch did most of the calling” to law enforcement.

Orders of protection have been invaluable in protecting victims from harm in domestic violence cases. According to the Missouri Judicial Annual Report statistics, the number of orders of protection filed in Boone County went up in 2006 to 1,064 from the 987 that were filed in 2005.

But as the Bohannon-Clinch story illustrates, in some cases the evidence amounts to one person’s word against another. Conflicting views of Bohannon and the Clinch family are evident in court documents and the statements of those who interacted with them.

In requesting sole custody of their three children, Amanda Clinch had expressed concern about Bohannon’s violent behavior, according to a letter from a guardian ad litem who made recommendations in the couple’s divorce proceedings. Amanda Clinch stated that Bohannon was “unstable, abusive, neglectful, violent and alcoholic.”

But attorney Gregory Robinson, who represented Bohannon in a violation of an order of protection case, said Amanda Clinch used the system against Bohannon by filing violations, making his “life a living hell.”

Fact-finding

Colleen Coble, who has been chief executive officer of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence since 1988, said that deciphering the issue of false claims of abuse is no different than any other decision a judge makes on a regular basis because “the judge is the fact-finder.”

The process of obtaining a protective order begins at the circuit clerk’s office where the petitioner fills out paperwork, said Mary Beck, an MU clinical professor of law. In it, the petitioner must describe his or her relationship to the respondent and the abuse.

“The circuit clerk then passes the paperwork to an on-call judge, who reviews it,” she said. “If it meets the criteria, then the judge files it as ex parte.”

An ex parte order of protection is issued when only one side is represented: the petitioner. It goes into effect immediately, if granted, until the court hearing where the respondent is present, Beck said. Often, this period can last up to 15 days. At the hearing, which is scheduled even if an ex parte is not granted, a judge will decide whether to issue the petitioner a full order of protection. This order can remain in effect for up to one year, based on the evidence from both sides.

Judge Leslie Schneider, of the 13th Judicial Circuit Court in Boone County, said that as a judge who reviews petitions for ex parte orders of protection, she only reviews the paperwork.

Schneider declined to comment on whether the orders of protection process has the potential to be abused.

“That is not an opinion for me to give,” she said. “I’m here to be the judge for it.”

The process to achieve an ex parte order is simple, yet those who administer them give each careful and detailed consideration.

Leigh Voltmer, director of The Shelter in Columbia, said that staff there who seek emergency ex partes for clients look at a number of factors.

“We look at patterns of violence and do an assessment” before helping victims fill out paperwork, Voltmer said. “There’s an assessment of lethality, how the person was referred to us, what their demeanor and statements are at the time.”

The order of protection is a very important aspect of protecting women from domestic violence, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney John Roodhouse said, but when there’s an alleged violation of an order of protection, police and attorneys don’t simply take the victim’s word.

“Physically, the order of protection is just a piece of paper with words on it,” he said. “The only thing that gives it any teeth, any security to a victim of domestic violence, is when we are able to successfully enforce these orders. We want to send a statement out to the community that these orders will be enforced and a violation of an order of protection will have consequences.”

Roodhouse, who deals mainly with violations of orders of protection, said that many of the cases he handles involve a respondent who violated the order by trespassing on property he or she is forbidden from entering. There are also many cases in which the respondent has been harassing or threatening the victim by phone, e-mail or through third parties. When all the evidence available is one person’s word against another, prosecutors have a difficult time moving forward.

“Often the only witness to the violation is the victim, and the defendant is denying that the violation occurred,” he said. “At that point, law enforcement tries to find ways to corroborate the victim’s statement, but in many cases that evidence just does not exist. Because our standard is beyond a reasonable doubt, unfortunately there are a number of violations that do occur that we are not able to pursue with criminal charges.”

But unlike ex partes, where judges only review the petitions and have to take solely the petitioner’s word at face value, prosecuting violations of orders of protection allows attorneys to request that further evidence be collected. Police investigate violations in several ways, said detective Randy Nichols of the Columbia Police DOVE Unit.

“If (a victim says) they are being called, we subpoena phone records,” he said. “We will also talk to the suspect. If there are witnesses, then we use them. The suspect may also need to have an alibi.”

In ex parte orders, the judge will typically err on the side of the petitioner, Roodhouse said.

“We always need to err on the side of protecting a victim,” he said. “If someone abuses it, then that’s something we have to live with.”

In the case of Jeremy Bohannon, it remains unclear whether the Clinch family used ex parte orders in abusive fashion. There is no actual documentation in court records, which include the divorce proceedings and petitions for the orders of protection.

Attorney Steve Cuntz, an advice attorney for the Mid-Missouri Legal Services, said there’s no question that misuse of the orders of protection process occurs and that the vulnerability with the process starts with the parties involved.

“Orders of protection cases have a highly charged emotional element because the parties are involved in emotionally charged relationships,” he said. “Sometimes people aren’t thinking logically or rationally.”

The potential for abuse can begin with the filing of an ex parte. Based on limited information, an ex parte is granted if there is an immediate presence of danger for the petitioner. When a petitioner can’t have a hearing because both parties aren’t present and there’s a possibility of harm, “the idea is to err on the side of caution,” Cuntz said.

Petitions are solely the words of a victim.

On the rare occasion that the sworn statements are discovered to be false, a hearing to evaluate whether a full order of protection should be granted allows the other side its day in court, Cuntz said.

More protection

The Missouri Adult Abuse Law was passed in 1980, creating orders of protection. It has since been refined and amended, largely due to the efforts of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

A group of advocates who wanted to improve the laws and services available to those in need, such as working to increase funding for shelters for domestic violence victims, created the coalition, said Lisa Weingarth, the organization’s communication coordinator.

“The services provided are life-saving and life-changing,” Coble said. “How do you put a value on being safe? Many would say that’s a fundamental right and priority.”

Passage of the Adult Abuse Act represented a dramatic shift in public policy, Coble said.

“The burden of responsibility was taken from the victim of a crime and placed on law enforcement,” she said. “Now there is a civil order of the court to protect women from violence in their own homes.”

Originally, the act established orders of protection with criminal penalties for violations and created a requirement for enforcement officers to respond the same to domestic violence crimes as to other crimes committed between people. Over the past 20 years, the coalition has updated, revised and expanded the act to address different situations, Coble said. Now, women no longer have to pay for the orders, and dating relationships are included, among many other things.

The act is reviewed often, Coble said, based on the feedback the coalition receives from advocates and law enforcement.

“We want to find out what’s working and what’s not working on a daily basis so we can make changes,” she said.

“I believe that the passage of the Adult Abuse Act, as well as an increase in services provided to battered women, have given women an opportunity to reach out for help,” Janet Amitin of The Shelter said. “Before the enactment of the Adult Abuse Act, law enforcement was not able to assist victims of domestic violence the way they can today.”

For Coble, it is a combination of both.

“It’s not something we have statistics on, but there is more awareness, which is a measure of success,” she said. “I think that has had a real effect.”


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