Law enforcement and domestic violence support groups had the rug pulled out from under them this week after a new Idaho Supreme Court ruling on misdemeanor arrests.
The Idaho Supreme Court determined unanimously that law enforcement officers cannot make an arrest if they believe the case is a misdemeanor unless the officer witnessed the crime or has a warrant.
Arrests based on probable cause often remove abusers from homes and reduce the risk of repeat and escalating violence, according to Teena McBride, the director of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Center in Idaho Falls. While the suspect is in jail, the victim has time to come up with a plan to keep themselves and other family members safe.
“If you can’t address them at a misdemeanor level, you see an increase at the felony level,” McBride said.
Justice Joel Horton wrote in his opinion on the case that a 1979 law allowing warrantless arrests did not meet the constitutional standard against unlawful searches and seizures.
The 1979 law made exceptions for arrest rules in domestic abuse cases. Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Sgt. Bryan Lovell said the change meant law enforcement would have to approach domestic abuse like other misdemeanors.
“It doesn’t mean people can get away with these things,” Lovell said.
Both the sheriff’s office and Idaho Falls Police Department respond to multiple domestic violence calls daily.
Officers can still make a warrantless arrest if they believe the crime rises to a felony, typically when a weapon is used or the abuser causes a traumatic injury.
An arrest warrant can only be obtained during business hours when judges are available. The wait for a warrant can take several days if there is a weekend or holiday, or if all the judges are occupied with cases.
“We have a lot of vulnerable women, and it ties the police officers’ hands,” said Shane Dial, child abuse coordinator for the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Center.
The Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence put out a news release saying it is assessing the situation and attempting to find if other states have faced similar circumstances.
McBride said she’s been in contact with the coalition and is looking for a solution for domestic violence victims. She said domestic violence victims will have to rely more on civil protection orders and that centers may have to provide more shelter, a prospect that was already facing challenges with housing costs.
McBride is hoping the ruling will only have a temporary effect, and that the Idaho Legislature can propose an amendment to allow probable cause arrests for misdemeanors.
Such an amendment would have to pass both the Idaho House and Senate with two-thirds of the votes. If the Legislature did pass an amendment, it would then appear on the next general election ballot in November 2020, and if a majority of voters supported the amendment, it would become law.