Speaking of Women's Rights: A Victory in Court for Domestic Violence Awareness

Monday, October 28, 2013

A Victory in Court for Domestic Violence Awareness

Did you know that October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month?  Every year, we mark this occasion by mourning those who lost their lives to intimate partner violence, celebrating survivors, and renewing our commitment to ending domestic violence.

This year, we also received some good news from the Washington Supreme Court that coincided with Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  On October 17, the Court issued a powerful decision that shows how improved awareness of domestic violence can result in stronger legal protections for survivors.  But tragically, the case also demonstrates how the lack of awareness of domestic violence can lead to preventable deaths.

The case was Washburn v. City of Federal Way.  The facts of the case are horrifying. In 2008, Baerbel Roznowski obtained a protection order to require her abusive partner Paul Kim to leave her home.  Ms. Roznowski filled out paperwork that specifically informed the police that Mr. Kim was likely to react violently when served with the order, had a history of assault, and would need an interpreter to understand the order.

But the police officer who served the protection order didn’t even read the paperwork Ms. Roznowski completed.  Instead, the officer knocked on the door to Ms. Roznowski’s home, handed the order to Mr. Kim, and walked away.  The officer saw Ms. Roznowski in the background but never asked to speak to her.  Instead, the officer left Mr. Kim alone in the house with Ms. Roznowski, in direct violation of the protection order.  Three hours later, Mr. Kim stabbed Ms. Roznowski to death.

Legal Voice, joined by several allies, filed an amicus brief arguing that the city must be held liable for negligence in connection with Ms. Roznowski’s death.  We argued that the officer should have been aware that his actions put Ms. Roznowski in danger.  We emphasized that it is widely known that victims of domestic violence face a higher risk of violence when they attempt to separate from abusive intimate partners, and the police must have a duty to guard against this danger when they serve protection orders.

In a unanimous decision, the Washington Supreme Court agreed with us.  The Court held that the City violated a duty to take “reasonable steps” to guard against the possibility that Mr. Kim would harm Ms. Roznowski.  The Court held that “the police are generally aware of the problem of separation violence” and that the officer’s “duty to act reasonably required him to take steps to guard Roznowski against Kim’s criminal acts.”

The Court’s decision is both encouraging and heartbreaking.  It is encouraging because it shows, at least in this context, that all nine members of the Court were well aware of the risk that Ms. Roznowski faced, and agreed that the police must take reasonable steps to ensure a victim’s safety when serving protection orders.  This decision will literally save lives.

But the Court’s decision is also heartbreaking because it underscores that Ms. Roznowski’s death could have been prevented, if only the police had been aware of the danger she faced and taken the threat seriously.

And the need to take domestic violence seriously is just as urgent as ever.  On average, three women each day are murdered by intimate partners in the United States – and thousands more are beaten, terrorized, and subjected to coercive control by abusers.  Although justice has come too late for Ms. Roznowski, we hope the Supreme Court’s decision will help ensure that what happened to Ms. Roznowski never happens to another woman in Washington.