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SD panel endorses broadening domestic abuse law

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By Chet Brokaw

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PIERRE (AP) — South Dakota should join the majority of other states by expanding its domestic abuse laws to cover couples who are dating but don't live together, a legislative panel decided Monday.

The House Judiciary Committee also approved some other measures intended to protect abuse victims and their children, but rejected a bill that would have made it an additional crime to commit domestic violence in the presence of children.

The law should cover people who are or have been dating because they are among those prone to repeated violence, Pennington County State's Attorney Mark Vargo said. People in such close relationships need the domestic abuse coverage because it requires a mandatory arrest and streamlines the process of getting a protection order, he said.

"There is by far a much greater danger that the violence will escalate in repeated encounters between the same two people," Vargo said.

Current law defines domestic abuse as harm, the attempted harm or the infliction of fear of harm committed by family or household members against spouses, former spouses, some relatives, people who live or have lived in the same household or people who have a child together.

The Judiciary Committee voted 8-5 to endorse a bill that would broaden the coverage to people who are in or have been in a significant romantic relationship with each other or are expecting a child together.

The bills were written by a legislative summer study that was set up after the 2013 Legislature killed a measure that would have more clearly defined who is protected. The House and Senate a year ago could not agree on whether same-sex couples should be protected by the domestic abuse laws, but the measure approved Monday does not limit coverage to couples of the opposite sex.

Opponents said the bill broadening coverage of the domestic laws could create problems because judges might have trouble deciding which couples are in a significant romantic relationship.

"I find that it's too vague," said Rep. Timothy Johns, R-Lead, a former circuit judge.

But supporters said the bill, which is now headed to the full House, gives judges sufficient guidance to determine which couples are in significant romantic relationships. The measure says a judge should consider the length of a relationship, its characteristics, how often two people interact or how long since the relationship ended.

Vargo said 44 other states cover dating or romantic relationship in their domestic abuse laws.

Ryan Kolbeck, a Sioux Falls lawyer, testified against the measure, saying current law adequately covers assault involving couples who are dating because the assailant can still be charged with assault.

Kolbeck said the bill would "drag the intimate affairs of two people into the courtroom for everyone to observe and judge."

South Dakota does not have a stand-alone crime of domestic abuse. Instead, people are charged with assault or other crimes with a tag added to indicate when an offense involves domestic abuse. That tag, or notation, helps victims gets protection orders against those who have hurt them and can also help them qualify for other programs that provide protection and financial assistance.

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