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Any Victim of Stalking, Sexual Assault, or Sexual Abuse May Apply For Civil Protection

A.R. v. F.C.
CPO579-11 (D.C. App. ) (Dec. 22, 2012)

by Kevin M. Cox, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (

On February 25, 2011, A.R. filed a petition for a Civil Protection Order (“CPO”) in the Domestic Violence Unit of the Superior Court for the District of Columbia and requested that a Temporary Protection Order (“TPO”) be issued against F.C. At an ex parte TPO hearing held the same day, A.R. alleged that F.C. had sexually assaulted her. A.R. testified that she and the respondent had not been “boyfriend and girlfriend,” nor were they “living together” or in an “intimate relationship.” Rather, respondent was an acquaintance, “one of the best friends of [her] ex-boyfriend.” After determining that the parties were not in an “interpersonal, intimate partner, or intrafamily” relationship, the trial judge concluded that there was no “relationship here that would make this an appropriate matter for Domestic Violence Court.” For this reason, and without determining whether A.R.’s allegations against F.C. were true, the Court dismissed the Petition on legal grounds.

Section 16-1003(a) of the D.C. CODE permits a “petitioner” to “file a petition for civil protection in the Domestic Violence Unit against a respondent who has allegedly committed or threatened to commit one or more criminal offenses against the petitioner . . . .” The broad sweep of this language is limited significantly by a companion provision which defines a “petitioner” as “any person who alleges, or for whom is alleged, that he or she is the victim of interpersonal, intimate partner, or intrafamily violence, stalking, sexual assault, or sexual abuse.” D.C. Code § 16-1001(12). Focusing on this definition, the trial court held that § 16-1001(12) grants access to civil protection orders only to persons alleging an “interpersonal, intimate partner, or intrafamily” relationship with the respondent. In other words, the Court concluded that these adjectives limit the reach of each of the following four terms — “violence,” “stalking,” “sexual assault,” and “sexual abuse.”

Under the trial court’s reading, a victim could not qualify for a CPO based on an allegation of stalking, sexual assault, or sexual abuse by a stranger or a mere acquaintance. Petitioner argued to the contrary that the statute permits victims of “stalking, sexual assault, or sexual abuse” to apply for a CPO regardless of their relationship to the respondent.

D.C. CODE §§ 16-1001(6), (7), and (9) define “interpersonal violence,” “intimate partner violence,” and “intrafamily violence.” These terms are also easily recognizable within the definition of “petitioner.”

The trial court applied the qualifiers “interpersonal, intimate partner, or intrafamily” not only to “violence,” but also to “stalking, sexual assault, or sexual abuse,” but, doing so would create nine (9) new, undefined categories of CPO-eligible petitioners, and the limits of these categories would be highly uncertain. The D.C. CODE does not provide a definition for the otherwise inscrutable terms, “interpersonal sexual abuse” and “intrafamily stalking” created by the trial judge’s reading. On the other hand, the unmodified terms “stalking,” “sexual assault,” and “sexual abuse” have clear meanings in the criminal law. See D.C. CODE §§ 22-3001 to 22-3005 (sexual abuse); 22-3131 to 22-3133 (stalking); Davis v. United States, 873 A.2d 1101, 1104 (D.C. 2005) (discussing offenses “which we refer to generally as sexual assaults”); Mungo v. United States, 772 A.2d 240, 246 (D.C. 2001) (“non-violent sexual touching assault”). Moreover, if the Court read “interpersonal, intimate partner, or intrafamily” to limit each of the crimes listed, there would have been no point in adding the words “stalking, sexual assault, or sexual abuse” to the definition. The definitions of “interpersonal violence,” “intimate partner violence,” and “intrafamily violence” already encompass “act[s] punishable as a criminal offense,” which surely include the crimes of stalking, sexual assault, and sexual abuse. See D.C. CODE §§ 16-1001 (6), (7), (9). Further, it was also clear that the Legislature intended in recent years to expand the reach of the civil protection remedy.

District of Columbia law permits victims of stalking, sexual assault, or sexual abuse to seek the protections of a CPO, but without conferring on them other rights linked to the separate definition of “intrafamily offense.” D.C. CODE § 16-1001(8) (“‘Intrafamily offense’ means interpersonal, intimate partner, or intrafamily violence.”). This approach “distinguish[es] [intrafamily] relationships (which affect provisions elsewhere in the Code that apply to intrafamily offenses, e.g., mandatory arrest, landlord/tenant protections, custody presumptions, etc.),” while still affording civil protection to other vulnerable groups, including victims of stalking, sexual assault, and sexual abuse. The Court held that the result is that there now are two types of petitioners who may seek a CPO: alleged victims of “interpersonal, intimate partner, or intrafamily violence” and alleged victims of “stalking, sexual assault, or sexual abuse.”

Because D.C. CODE §16-1001 (12) and §16-1003 (a) permit “any person who alleges . . . that he or she is the victim of . . . stalking, sexual assault, or sexual abuse” to apply for civil protection, the decision of the trial court was reversed and the case was remanded for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.