YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Page 2 / News, Trends, Gossip and Stuff To Do

We're Showing a Lot of Restraint

They may seem increasingly run-of-the-mill, but restraining orders are nothing

to be taken lightly--they can come back to haunt you.


Were we the only ones surprised that Rick Rockwell fell from grace not because of inherent dweebiness, but because of a 9-year-old restraining order filed by an ex-fiancee?

Were we alone in our evidently misguided belief that restraining orders are part of the California legal way of life and sometimes not taken very seriously?

Were we the only ones who sniffed truth when a TV reporter asked the defrocked stud about the restraining order filed against him, and Rockwell replied:

". . . You have two very passionate individuals that acted in a bit of an immature tit-for-tat way as a relationship was coming to its conclusion. This was a final volley."

He also implied that he didn't take the order very seriously and considered it a "nonevent."

At his peril, it turned out. Legal experts say people should take very seriously any legal document filed against them. And a domestic restraining order, by definition, means that someone with whom you have had a relationship is saying you have committed or threatened to commit some kind of violence.

Restraining orders, which typically forbid personal contact, are meant, as one lawyer said, to "put a fence around" the threatened party, to protect person and property from harm.

Former lovers can become vindictive as relationships crumble. In times of broken hearts and broken vows, they may truly become violent--or may simply look for ways to get even or gain a tactical advantage over someone from whom they are trying to untangle.

Any of these situations can lead to requests for restraining orders. Last year, 15,176 orders were issued in Los Angeles County. One can only wonder in this post-Rockwell world how many people are now worrying that long-ago legal papers might surface to ruin their lives.

"The file will always be there," said Sorrell Trope, a respected West Los Angeles divorce lawyer. "Unless it is made permanent, the order ends when the case ends. Although it expires, it continues to exist as a document somewhere."

"These things can be ticking time bombs," mused Raoul Felder, a high-profile New York divorce attorney. "What if Rick Rockwell were not some poor schmuck, but someone who wanted to run for Congress? This thing would haunt him to his grave."

Restraining orders have become increasingly easy to obtain since the 1993 passage of the Domestic Violence Protection Act. Women's-rights and legal advocacy groups have raised public awareness about the need for speed in forcing abusers to stay away from their prey.

Web sites offer step-by-step instructions in how to obtain orders without an attorney's help. Police officers and court clerks also provide information. Anyone can fill out the forms, file them and get the request before a judge. Yet there is some controversy here and around the country about the potential misuse of the legal measure.

"I've seen restraining orders used ranging from matters of physical assault to attempted murder right down to mythical annoyances that people have dreamed up," Trope said. "But I have also seen many situations where such orders are amply justified. They must always be taken very seriously by both parties."

After all, he said, the person who requests the order, which must be approved by a judge, has to file a declaration under penalty of perjury. Disobeying an order is a criminal offense punishable with jail time.

In some divorce cases, he added, lawyers get together and make it a mutual restraining order so that there is the appearance of a level playing field.

Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred allowed that restraining orders are sometimes used as preemptive strikes.

"If one party thinks the other is going to seek an order, he or she will seek it first--in order to look like the victim rather than the wrongdoer," she said.

People who believe they have been unfairly accused must be sure to go to court and defend themselves against the order, said Allred, because such orders can "come back years later to bite you in the neck."

Lisa Helfand Meyer, family lawyer and a

consultant on the CBS show, "Family Law," likes to say that "Attila the Hun never marries Mother Teresa . . . by which I mean there are two sides to every tale."

And yet, she added, "courts won't grant requests for restraining orders unless it is more probable than not that the incident occurred. If you say a person approached and threatened to kill you, the court must decide is it more probable than not that it happened. You don't have to show clear and convincing evidence, or evidence beyond a reasonable doubt."

In rare cases, said Marci Fukuroka, attorney for the California Women's Law Center, the wrong people may be able to obtain restraining orders--and those who deserve them may be denied.

"Some judges grant the orders easily; others routinely deny requests, even to people in real danger," she said. "Some police, called to a scene of domestic violence between a man and woman, will note only that a man has deep scratches on his face. They will ignore that the scratches were caused by a woman defending herself."

(Rockwell's former fiancee, Debbie Lee Goyne, claimed he slapped and threatened to kill her. He has denied the charge, and Goyne did not respond to requests for an interview.)

Whatever the truth, easy access and an upsurge in public awareness of restraining orders has apparently turned them into a kind of pop culture issue. A recent New Yorker cartoon shows a man in a flower shop, asking the woman behind the counter: "What sort of flowers say, 'I promise to obey the restraining order'?"

Los Angeles Times Articles