Get SF Weekly Newsletters

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Ross Mirkarimi Shocks Legal Scholars With Claim That Abuse Allegations Are "a Family Matter"

Posted By on Tue, Jan 10, 2012 at 1:35 PM

click to enlarge Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi and his wife, Eliana Lopez - LUKE THOMAS, FOG CITY JOURNAL
  • Luke Thomas, Fog City Journal
  • Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi and his wife, Eliana Lopez

Ross Mirkarimi is innocent.

Of course he is -- he is innocent until proven guilty. It remains to be seen if District Attorney George Gascón will even  charge the sheriff with domestic abuse following a police report filed by Mirkarimi's neighbor.

Regardless, the language Mirkarimi has used to describe the situation has deeply troubled legal scholars with an expertise in the state's domestic violence laws. For a top city law enforcement official to describe abuse allegations in which a police report has been filed and an investigation is under way as "a private matter, a family matter" -- as Mirkarimi did -- is both legally incorrect and sends the disturbing message that accusations of domestic violence are to be kept behind closed doors.

In fact, Nancy K.D. Lemon, a lecturer at U.C. Berkeley's Domestic Violence Law Seminar, notes that one of the questions on her recent final exam was "Give some examples of how we are moving away from seeing domestic violence as a private, family matter."

The notion that allegations of domestic abuse belong out of the public eye is "a very antiquated view of domestic violence," Lemon says. "A century ago we thought it was a private, family matter. We found a lot of people were hurt -- or killed." Rather than treat domestic violence as a domestic problem, Lemon notes, it is now seen as a crime against the state. That's why prosecutors can move ahead with charges, even if the alleged victim refuses to cooperate, or even actively opposes the process.

To classify domestic violence as a problem for families to sort out on their own exposes a mentality "predating the 1970s," says professor Marisa Cianciarulo, the director of Chapman University's Family Violence Clinic. The nation's first Domestic Violence Protection Act was enacted in Pennsylvania in 1976; California followed shortly thereafter. Prior to that time, an attack that, by a stranger, would constitute battery could go uncharged if it was received in a domestic attack.

But the pendulum has shifted. Lemon notes that a lower standard is necessary for a felony charge in domestic battery than in a general case. "Police often tell me it's seven stitches or a broken bone," to garner felony charges in a battery case, she says. "In domestic violence, on the other hand, even something as minor as a bloody nose, a scratch or bruise, or a black eye could result in a felony arrest."

What's more, the old "she started it" defense doesn't hold. Police now look for the "dominant aggressor." Who started the fight "is irrelevant," Lemon continues. "The real question is, who responded appropriately or who overreacted?"

In short, the law has changed a great deal since allegations of domestic violence truly were a family matter. To claim the same today "sends the message that it's okay for the head of the household to be abusive with his or her spouse or partner," says professor Wendy Seiden, Cianciarulo's colleague at the Family Violence Clinic. "It says violence is okay if it's in the family."

In fact, Seiden notes, none other than O.J. Simpson referred to alleged domestic abuse as "a family matter."

No one would lump the deeds -- alleged or otherwise -- of Mirkarimi and Simpson together. They have, however, both chosen a most unfortunate set of words.

Follow us on Twitter at @SFWeekly and @TheSnitchSF 


  • Pin It

Tags: , , , , , ,

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" is a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly, which he has written for since 2007. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers... more

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed

Like us on Facebook

Slideshows

  • A Look Back at Summer 2014
    Labor Day is the unofficial end to summer -- back to school, the days grow shorter, and fall weather is just around the corner. So have a look back at San Francisco's 2014 summer.
  • Jack White at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium
    Jack White and his band performed at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on Friday and Saturday nights in front of sold out audiences. Jack entertained his fans with music that included songs from his days with The White Stripes, and The Raconteurs, as well as hits from his solo albums; Blunderbuss and Lazaretto. Photography by Sugarwolf.