N.H. legislation would require formal complaint in domestic-abuse arrests
A House committee will consider legislation today that would bar police officers from arresting people for domestic abuse unless a formal criminal complaint has been filed.
The New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence says the legislation would dramatically weaken the power of the police to stop abusers. But its prime sponsor, Republican Rep. Dan Itse of Fremont, says it would discourage false accusations and bring the law in line with the state Constitution.
“The issue is very simple. Fundamentally, it’s very simple,” Itse said. “The Constitution of the state of New Hampshire . . . states that no one shall be arrested except under warrant.”
Under state law, an officer can arrest someone for abuse without a warrant if they have probable cause that abuse has taken place within the past 12 hours, regardless of whether they witness the crime or a formal complaint has been filed.
“Common sense dictates – and I think the public is pretty strongly behind us – that if a police officer arrives at a scene and they see a battered victim of domestic violence, they should be able to arrest the offender on probable cause,” said Amanda Grady Sexton, the anti-violence coalition’s director of public policy.
Itse is the prime sponsor of two similar bills, which he said is the result of a drafting error. They should be combined, he said, since they deal with nearly identical language in different statutes.
One bill would require an officer to either witness the abuse or have a criminal complaint in order to arrest someone. The second would require a criminal complaint to be filed, which Itse said was his intent.
“If a police officer really believes that domestic abuse is occurring, they can enter the criminal complaint. It isn’t required that the individual being attacked enter the complaint,” Itse said. “So if a police officer were responding, I believe he would have the power to make the complaint himself, as in any other crime.”
Both bills are scheduled to be heard this afternoon, starting at 1, by the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. Public testimony will be taken but no votes are expected.
One problem with the current law, Itse said, is that false accusations can be made without a formal complaint being filed, which he said is “particularly problematic when accusations are used for advantage in divorce cases.” Under his proposal, he said, if a false complaint is made, it will be in the form of a formal report, and filing a false report is a crime.
“What I am suggesting is that there should be at least a criminal complaint filed,” he said, “the reason being, if there is a false accusation, the false criminal complaint is itself actionable.”
But Grady Sexton said false reports aren’t a big problem.
“Statistics show that this is one of the most unreported crimes,” she said, “and by the time a police officer gets a call about this kind of crime, there’s a trail of horrific crimes behind it.”
The first bill is sponsored by four House Republicans, including Itse. The second is sponsored by eight House Republicans and one GOP senator, Sen. Sam Cataldo of Farmington. The co-sponsors include Rep. Al Baldasaro of Londonderry and Rep. Pam Tucker of Greenland, two of the three leaders of the conservative House Republican Alliance.
The legislation would also change a clause in state law saying an officer “should” arrest the “primary physical aggressor” in a case where people have attacked each other. Instead, under the bill, officers “may” arrest the main aggressor.
“It in no way diminishes the capacity of a police officer to arrest somebody. They have every power necessary to do so,” Itse said. “But it takes away the implication – and it’s only an implication – that they must do so.”
Grady Sexton said officers have that discretion already, and removing an aggressor can reduce the chances of abuse escalating to homicide. The state’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review Committee released a report last year showing that half the homicides in New Hampshire from 2001 to 2010 stemmed from domestic violence, and domestic violence was a factor in 92 percent of murder-suicides.
“We think that if the police officer left the scene without arresting the offender, that there’d be a good chance that we’d see an increase in lethality for victims and their children,” she said.
Grady Sexton said much of the law enforcement community has lined up to oppose Itse’s bills, including the attorney general’s office, the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, the New Hampshire Police Association, the New Hampshire Troopers Association and the state Department of Safety. The New Hampshire Democratic Party sent out an “action alert” yesterday opposing the bills.
Itse introduced a similar bill during the last session. It was killed last year by the full House on a 14-0 recommendation from the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
Grady Sexton said she’s concerned by the number of co-sponsors on Itse’s legislation this year.
“New Hampshire is a model state for other states,” she said. “We have some of the strongest laws in the country. . . . Obviously, when you have eight co-sponsors on a bill that is this egregious, you have educational work to do.”
(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)