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SD panel recommends broadening domestic abuse laws

By Chet Brokaw

PIERRE — South Dakota’s domestic abuse laws should be expanded to cover dating couples who don’t live together, a state legislative panel recommended Monday.

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The Domestic Abuse Study Committee, which took a broad look at the state’s domestic abuse laws in the past few months, also approved some recommendations aimed at protecting children of abuse victims. The panel’s recommendations will be presented for consideration by the full Legislature in the session that begins in January.

Current law defines domestic abuse as physical harm, attempted harm or the infliction of fear of harm between spouses, former spouses, some relatives, people who live or have lived in the same household or people who have a child together. Law enforcement officials have said the law needs to be changed, particularly to protect people abused in dating relationships.

The measure endorsed by the legislative panel would broaden the coverage to people who are in or have been in a significant romantic relationship with each other.

“What we want to do is make it clear we’ve got dating violence covered,” Rep. Tona Rozum, R-Mitchell, said.

Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City, said judges would look at the facts of each case to determine whether dating people were in a significant romantic relationship. The measure also would make it clear that domestic violence laws protect pregnant women, who are not necessarily covered by current law, he said.

The study was prompted after the Legislature killed a bill earlier this year that would have more clearly defined who is protected. The House and Senate could not agree on whether same-sex couples should be protected by the domestic abuse laws. The measure recommended Monday by the study committee does not limit coverage to couples of the opposite sex.

Committee members said they wrote their proposals with language aimed at gathering broad support from the Legislature.

The proposals also make it clear domestic abuse can occur between a parent and a child.

Another proposal endorsed by the committee would create an additional misdemeanor crime for anyone who commits domestic abuse in the presence of a child. Except in certain circumstances, judges would be expected to impose a jail sentence that would be served after an abuser’s sentence for assault or other crime of violence.

Rep. Mike Stevens, RYankton, said the legislative package seeks to protect children in abusive families and teach them “there’s a better way of doing things.”

South Dakota doesn’t 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 involved domestic abuse. That tag, or notation, allows victims to get protection orders against those who have hurt them and can also help them qualify for other programs that provide financial assistance to victims.

Committee members said they believe their proposals make needed improvements to South Dakota’s domestic abuse laws.

“We are raising the bar on what it means to have a fair and just South Dakota,” said Sen. Deb Soholt, R-Sioux Falls, the panel’s chair.