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Domestic violence bills advance out of panels (UPDATE)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Two bills aimed at strengthening the state’s domestic abuse laws received approval Thursday from legislative committees, including one that would require officers responding to domestic violence calls to explain themselves if they failed to make an arrest.

The other bill would expand the scope of evidence that can be used to prosecute domestic violence cases.

Wisconsin is among 23 states with laws requiring officers responding to domestic violence calls to make an arrest. The laws are aimed at curbing violence in cases in which victims may be afraid to speak honestly about what happened or feel obligated to defend their spouses.

Still, arrests aren’t always made. The Brown Deer Police Department received criticism last year after a resident fatally shot his 42-year-old wife and two others at a Brookfield spa before killing himself. Police had responded to the couple’s home in January 2011 and again several weeks before the fatal shootings but never arrested Radcliffe Haughton. Twelve state lawmakers signed a letter sent to the police department in November, accusing it of not following the law.

Brown Deer police said officers left without making an arrest because they didn’t believe Haughton posed a threat and his wife refused to cooperate.

The bill put forward by Rep. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere, would require officers to file reports with their district attorney’s office explaining why they had ruled out abuse and did not make an arrest.

The Assembly Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee unanimously approved that bill.

A second bill from Jacque won approval from the Assembly Criminal Justice Committee. That bill would expand the scope of evidence that can be used to prosecute domestic violence cases.

It would allow prosecutors to use reports of suspects’ relevant misconduct over the previous 10 years, including violations of restraining orders or injunctions, and convictions for domestic abuse, stalking or harassment. Right now, judges don’t always allow such evidence, fearing it would prejudice a jury.

Rep. Fred Kessler, a Milwaukee Democrat and former judge, said he was troubled by the bill because it didn’t bar evidence from instances in which no charges were filed or the person wasn’t convicted. Kessler said it could result in unproven allegations being heard in court.

But Jacque dismissed the concern, saying judges would only consider relevant evidence.

Kessler received support from Rep. Evan Goyke, a former assistant state public defender, who said domestic abuse allegations often stem from highly emotional confrontations among family members whose statements might not be reliable. But Goyke voted for the bill anyway, saying he didn’t want to risk a suspect getting away with a crime. The committee approved the bill 7-1, with Kessler opposed.

A third domestic violence bill put forward by Jacque received approval from the public safety committee earlier in the week. It would give judges more power to keep domestic violence suspects in check by adding stalking, or threatening to stalk, to actions that constitute domestic abuse. The bill also would specify that when a new judge takes over a case, any restraining order would stay in place until the new judge had a hearing. Currently, the orders are suspended as soon as a suspect asks for a new judge.

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