Predators: When is a Restraining Order Right for Me?

Over the course of the last decade, the likes of Jennifer Aniston, Eva Mendes, Sharon Stone, Sandra Bullock and Justin Timberlake have all sought restraining orders. They went to court, they told a judge a fan was scaring them, and they received the protection of an order, requiring the fan to stay clear of them. But the law really isn’t like that for the rest of us. Unless we’ve involved ourselves in a career that attracts the attention of millions of people, the process is usually slower and less of a sure thing. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek one if you’re in danger. If someone is stalking you, threatening you, following you, you have a right to protection. But restraining orders have their downsides, and they’re not always right for everyone.

Restraining Orders vs. Protective Orders

Many individuals don’t even qualify for restraining orders, because their tormentors are not someone they are, or have been, personally or intimately involved with. For instance, maybe you’re single and you make it a habit to stop by your favorite pub for happy hour every Friday after work. It’s a great place and you know everyone there. Then, one night, you realize there’s a man sitting at the end of the bar, alone, a stranger. He’s watching you. He can’t seem to take his eyes off you. You might be flattered at first, then your intuition is triggered and you can feel it in your stomach. He won’t look away.

You follow your instincts and leave early. But he’s back the next week, and again the week after that, still watching you. He gets braver and tells the bartender he wants to buy you a drink. You decline. You leave immediately and as you’re walking to your car, you realize he’s right behind you. You get in your car quickly, but now he knows your vehicle. Maybe he’s even memorized the license plate.

You begin staying home more, because you don’t want to risk encountering him again. But it’s too late for that precaution, because he now knows a little about you. Maybe he knows a friend of a friend of a friend, someone who can run your license plate number and give him your name and address or even asks around the bar in a friendly way. The next thing you know, he’s parked in front of your residence most nights, watching your door, hoping for some glimpse of you. At first, you may feel that this scenario is straight out of a movie – it’s not. Situations just like this happen in almost every city all over the world.

Can you get a restraining order against this guy? In many states, no – because you don’t know him. You were never married to him, he’s not related to you, and you have no previous personal history with him. And this is scary, because strangers perpetrated 39 percent of violent crimes against individuals they didn’t know in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. One out of every ten stalking victims does not know the person who’s following her.

But the laws surrounding restraining orders are gradually changing to accommodate statistics. Massachusetts passed legislation in 2010 to specifically address these kinds of situations. Minnesota has passed similar legislation, and so has Washington. More and more states are climbing on board, allowing victims to seek protection from predators they don’t know. In most jurisdictions, these new orders are called protective orders or anti-harassment orders. They’re just like restraining orders — but you don’t have to know the individual who’s scaring you in order to get one.

Protective orders still have limitations. If you go to the police and report the stranger who followed you from the pub, they’ll investigate the situation for you. That’s their job. But you probably don’t have much information to give them to go on. You know what he looks like, and you may know what vehicle he drives. But unless you’re also able to get his license plate number, law enforcement is looking for a needle in a haystack. Working that hard to find the guy in a void probably won’t be their top priority. The justice system also works relatively slowly, and this is America, so your stalker has certain rights, too. He has a right to defend himself against your charges.

Getting a Protective Order

Here’s how the usual process of getting a restraining or protective order works. If you realize you need help on a weekend, late at night, or on a holiday, the courts are closed. You’ll have to go to the police instead. They’ll make a report, so your problem is logged in with the criminal justice system. They’ll also give you a temporary, emergency protective order against the individual who’s threatening you, good until the county court opens again on the next business day. If you happen to arrive at the police station during regular business hours, they’ll probably send you to the court right away. When you go to the courthouse, the staff or a judge will give you another temporary order, called an “ex parte” order, usually good for about two weeks. At the end of this time, the court will hold a hearing so a judge can decide if your order against this individual should become permanent.

Now things may get difficult if you don’t know your tormentor. A court officer or the police must serve a copy of your ex parte order on the person who’s following you. This is due process, and even criminals reserve the right to know when legal action has been taken against them. The order warns your stalker to stay clear of you, not to contact you, and it gives him the date of the court hearing when he can plead his case. But if you don’t know your stalker’s name, if you don’t know his address, the officer can’t locate him to give him a copy of the order. If your stalker never receives the order, if he doesn’t know when he’s supposed to appear in court to defend himself, due process hasn’t been achieved. Without due process, your temporary ex parte order will eventually expire. Even worse, your tormenter won’t even know that you’ve gotten a restraining order against him. At this point, all you’ve got working in your favor is the initial police report you made to law enforcement.

If you have been able to identify the person who’s been following you, watching you and threatening you, court officials will make sure he’s served with a copy of your order, but this is not without risk. He’s not a stable individual. He looked at you, and something inside him mis-clicked. He’s obsessed with you, and he’s not going to be happy to learn that you’ve taken steps to keep him at a distance. He might take your act as betrayal, and his anger might incite him to become more aggressive, rather than stay clear of you, as you intended. You’ve got your ex parte order, so you can call the police if he approaches you or contacts you. But it will take a few minutes, at least, for the police to reach you in an emergency, and by then it may be too late. Even the Colorado Bar Association warns that a restraining order isn’t a bullet-proof shield. It can’t stop your tormentor from breaking it. It can only punish him if he does.

You’ll also have to face your predator at the court proceeding in a few weeks, when your ex parte order expires, so you can get a permanent order. You’ll both have an opportunity to present your case to the judge, and your presentation is crucial. If your tormentor breaks the terms of your restraining or protective order, it’s a crime, so your county’s prosecutor will take over. But getting a permanent order is a civil matter; the prosecutor won’t involve himself in this. Therefore, you need to consider enlisting the help of a private attorney. This hearing is too important for you to risk handling it on your own. Your predator is going to try to convince the judge that he’s not a threat to you at all. If he appears in court with a seemingly plausible explanation for his repeated appearances on your street or for following you around, the judge might deny you a permanent order.

If this happens, you’re in a doubly bad situation. You’ve antagonized the person who is haunting you by applying for the ex parte order, and now he’s beaten you in a court of law. He’ll feel as though he has the upper hand. The court has effectively told him that he can do anything he likes to you, and he can get away with it. He won once, and he’ll think he can win again. No one — not even the law — can stop him.

Taking Other Precautions

Does all this mean you should not reach out to the law for help and get a restraining or protective order if someone is bothering you? Not at all. If you’re successful in getting that permanent order, you’re better off with it than without it. But don’t make the mistake of simply getting your protective order and stopping there, it’s not a bulletproof shield. Don’t trust that it alone will keep you safe. Install an alarm system on your home. Keep your cell phone by your bed at night, and if you hear anything suspicious, call 911 immediately. Get the police on their way. Don’t wait to try to figure out if you really heard anything or not, or if it really is the individual who’s stalking you. Avoid going anywhere alone. Your predator wants you, no one else, and in most cases, the presence and interference of another person will deter him. If you live alone, use your car key fob to beep your horn a couple of times as you leave your home and walk toward it. Startling noise will probably deter him as well. The important thing is to always keep your guard up, with or without a restraining order. Use your restraining order as a beginning, then multi-layer your defense. This is another topic altogether, but situational awareness – knowing your surroundings and being aware of what’s around you – can save your life. Be aware of people who watch you and more than anything else, trust your intuition – it’s in us all and there to protect us.

The Facts

  • 3.4 million people over the age of 18 are stalked each year in the United States.
  • 3 in 4 stalking victims are stalked by someone they know.
  • 30% of stalking victims are stalked by a current or former intimate partner.
  • 10% of stalking victims are stalked by a stranger.
  • Persons aged 18-24 years experience the highest rate of stalking.
  • 11% of stalking victims have been stalked for 5 years or more.
  • 1 in 2 stalking victims experience at least one unwanted contact per week.
  • 1 in 4 victims report being stalked through the use of some form of technology (such as e-mail or instant messaging).
  • 10% of victims report being monitored with global positioning systems (GPS), and 8% report being monitored through video or digital cameras, or listening devices.
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