Dating violence law helping police, protecting victims
Published: Sunday, January 3, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 2, 2010 at 10:52 p.m.
The state Barwick-Ruschak Act has been in effect a little more than a year, and law officers and victim's advocates throughout Florida say it has significantly helped them assist - and protect - victims of dating violence and threats.
Dating violence is defined as violence between people who have - or within the previous six months had - an ongoing and significant relationship of a romantic or intimate nature. The law does not cover violence between casual acquaintances.
The law was named for Ocala native Tiffany Barwick, 19, and Oviedo resident Michael Ruschak, 22, who were killed in 2007 by Barwick's one-time boyfriend.
That boyfriend, Andrew Allred, was sentenced to death in November 2008. He is now 23 and remains on Florida's death row pending appeal.
Just hours before they were slain, Barwick and Ruschak filed reports of Allred's threats with the Seminole County Sheriff's Office. But authorities said they weren't empowered to make an immediate arrest.
Under the new law, effective Oct. 1, 2008, they could. A key element of the Barwick-Ruschak Act allows officers to make an immediate, warrantless arrest when there is reason to believe an act of dating violence has occurred.
The Gainesville Police Department deals with cases of dating violence, sometimes involving young adults including those who attend the University of Florida.
The law has made "a key difference," police Capt. Ed Book said. "We definitely use it. It gives us another tool to make a proactive arrest when we believe violence is going to continue between two intimate partners."
In addition to contacting Gainesville police, The Sun contacted all 67 sheriff's offices in Florida and inquired about the new law's effectiveness. The majority of the 36 that responded echoed Book's praise.
"When responding to a dating violence situation, the Legislature has given law enforcement the tools to solve the problem," said Capt. Dennis Strow of the Marion County Sheriff's Office.
"In the past," he said, "the state did not give us the authority to make an arrest on an assault that did not take place in our presence."
Strow said the system has made great strides to assist victims in his career of 36 1/2 years.
The Barwick-Ruschak Act mirrors the state's domestic violence laws, which give officers wide latitude in making arrests, said Sgt. Scott Shoemaker, supervisor of the domestic violence unit of the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office.
The act also closed a loophole that has long plagued the domestic violence laws, said Sgt. Chris Webb of the Lee County Sheriff's Office domestic violence unit. Specifically, officers now need evidence of only one act of violence or aggression to make an arrest; before, it would take longer to develop a case for stalking or repeated violence, Webb said.
The law is especially relevant, said Webb, considering domestic violence was the only type of crime that increased in Florida during the first half of this year.
There were 5.2 percent more domestic violence cases investigated between January and June 2009 than during the same period in 2008, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Murder decreased 18.8 percent, and aggravated assault decreased 8.9 percent over the same time period.
Nineteen of the 36 sheriff's offices that responded to The Sun's inquiries said they had not handled a case in which the law was used, though their agencies' policies now reflect the act's requirements for informing victims of available services and shelters.
Some sheriff's officials, such as Maj. Dan Libby of the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office, said their agencies don't handle many dating violence cases.
In Charlotte, that might be because the county has an older population, and dating violence is considered more likely to occur among teenagers and young adults.
Lt. Scott Finnen of the Levy County Sheriff's Office said most potential cases in his agency's jurisdiction involve residents who live together or have a child in common; in those situations, the state's domestic violence laws kick in.
Officials from three of the 36 responding counties said the law had little to no impact on how cases are handled.
"The ability of officers to arrest for probable cause has been present for many years on battery, stalking, and violation of ex-parte injunctions," Ted Van Deman, public information officer for the Okeechobee County Sheriff's Office, wrote in an e-mail.
State Rep. Kurt Kelly, R-Ocala, sponsored the bill in the House after reading that the law officer who took the report about Allred's threats from Barwick and Ruschak felt there was nothing more officers could have legally done that day. Allred killed Barwick and Ruschak hours later.
Kelly said the law is intended to provide the same rights for dating violence victims already present for victims of domestic violence. Violence is violence, Kelly said; how the relationship is classified by law should not matter when it comes to helping victims.
Aside from the broader arrest rights, another major intent of the law concerns providing services and information to victims, Kelly said. He believes that if Barwick and Ruschak had been given more information that day, they might not have died that night.
To Kelly, the number of warrantless arrests made pursuant to the new law does not matter as much as the support and protection for victims of dating violence. Providing protection for residents is a legitimate purpose of government, he said.
One shortcoming, Kelly said, is that the law lacks a provision to relocate victims, which is something domestic violence legislation includes. Kelly said he will clean up the Barwick-Ruschak Act so that dating violence victims have the same rights as domestic violence victims.
One overall positive effect of the law is that dating violence is being discussed.
"Dating violence is incredibly widespread," Kelly said. But it's just not talked about.
Kelly has spoken about dating violence at churches, colleges, high schools and even middle schools. People tell him stories of violence and potential threats.
The dating violence law received national coverage in June, when ABC's "20/20" featured a story on Barwick and dating violence. Kelly said other states are using the law as a model to create similar laws.
Though she supports the new law, Kim Barwick still thinks authorities could have done more in the hours before her daughter's death.
She and George Ruschak, Michael Ruschak's father, are suing Seminole County; its sheriff, Donald F. Eslinger; and deputies Lynda Kay and Peter Brewer. The plaintiffs accuse the law officers of failing to act in Barwick and Ruschak's best interests to protect their lives.
They say the deputies did not issue an arrest warrant for Allred or question him. Barwick and Ruschak had shown Kay and Brewer threatening text messages Allred had sent; however, the deputies did not contact or arrest Allred, even though written threats to kill are a second-degree felony offense, according to the complaint.
The defendants are seeking a dismissal.
Kim Barwick said her ultimate goal is to expand dating violence laws nationwide. She said there was not a single vote against the bill in the Florida Legislature, which is a testament to the law's value.
Barwick said she wants the law to be a productive and working piece of legislation, not a statute that sits idle in the books.
Barwick said we often just assume there will be laws to protect us, but "there was nothing in the laws to protect my daughter."
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