Staggering exits at the end of every domestic violence court hearing is a simple procedure. Bailiffs can keep victims safe by holding respondents for at least 10 minutes after the petitioner leaves the courtroom.
When bailiffs don’t stagger exits, many survivors are harassed or assaulted by angry abusers on the way to their cars or buses. Staggering exits doesn’t cost a thing and doesn’t take a lot of staff time.
Court Watch volunteers recently observed 332 relevant protective order cases in Montgomery County’s District Courts. In each case, bailiffs should have protected petitioners by holding the respondent for 10 minutes after the petitioner left the courtroom. Bailiffs only held 56% of respondents the necessary 10 minutes.
Bailiffs often allowed respondents to leave only 1 or 2 minutes after the petitioner. This practice may be more dangerous than no waiting period at all, since victims may have a false sense of security.
The judges’ role
Busy judges don’t have time to check that bailiffs correctly stagger every relevant exit. But judges can announce at the beginning of their dockets that safe exits will be used and they can remind bailiffs to use them in particularly serious cases.
The District Court Administrative Judge sets policy. Judge Wolfe can make sure staggered exits are a part of bailiff training. He can make sure bailiffs use safe exits correctly. He can hold staff who do not implement this important procedure accountable.
Some judges in Montgomery County tell us that they do not have the power to hold a respondent after a case is completed if a respondent insists on leaving. That may be true. Yet our experience is that the vast majority of respondents will do what the judge and bailiffs request of them.
A request to wait 10 minutes is not overly burdensome, and can prevent a lot of fear and harm. Staggered exits may also increase the chances that a survivor will return to court if they need to, since it is more likely that he or she will feel safe. Returning to court, to get a final order, or request changes in an existing order, can save lives.
(Data was collected from September, 2015 through July, 2016).