By Andrew Piela
In many domestic violence situations, the accused does not always focus their abusive conduct on the victim. Instead, the abusive conduct may be directed at third persons, such as another household member or even a pet. The question that is often raised is whether conduct that is directed toward a third person and not the victim can still be considered an act of domestic violence.
In the recent case of LC v. WC (decided July 15, 2021), the Supreme Court held that acts of violence directed against third persons can constitute domestic violence. In LC, the plaintiff and defendant were married. The plaintiff, aside from sending her threatening text messages, had previously gotten drunk and brandished a firearm. The incident that triggered the filing of the domestic violence petition, however, occurred when the defendant, while intoxicated, pointed a gun at the plaintiff’s aunt, who was living in their home. The plaintiff was not present during this event.
The defendant argued at trial that because he did not threaten the plaintiff with a gun, but instead the plaintiff’s aunt, he did not commit an act of domestic violence against the plaintiff. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that the act of pointing a gun at the aunt met the definition of domestic violence, and because the defendant had a prior history of drinking and brandishing firearms, such conduct could cause the plaintiff to credibly fear for her safety. In reaching this decision, the Supreme Court noted that since conduct directed towards a pet still constituted domestic violence under the current version of the statute, domestic violence does not have to be directed solely at the alleged victim. The Supreme Court also distinguished the 1994 case of Seufert where it held that the defendant’s violent acts directed towards the parties’ children did not constitute domestic violence because, under the 1994 version of the statute, minor children were not “household members” that were protected under the domestic violence statute.
LC leaves open the question of when an act of violence against a third person can trigger a domestic violence petition. In LC, the predicate act was the pointing of a gun toward the aunt, who resided in the home. If the defendant was not at home and pointed a gun at the aunt, would the plaintiff still be able to argue that she had a credible fear of her safety? Taking the hypothetical further, if the defendant pointed the gun at a stranger outside of the home, and did not have a prior history of brandishing weapons at the plaintiff or other family members, would the plaintiff still be able to show they have a credible fear of harm? It is therefore important that the party seeking domestic violence protection be able to articulate how the conduct directed at a third person causes them to have a credible fear for their safety. In contrast, the defendant could still defeat the petition if he or she can show that the conduct directed towards the third person is too diluted to give the plaintiff a credible fear for their safety.
The family law attorneys at Shaheen & Gordon have the knowledge and experience to handle domestic violence matters involving behavior directed at third parties. If you or a loved one needs help navigating a domestic violence claim, we are here to help.