Court case may change face of domestic violence laws


MISSOULA, Mont. - Two Montana judges rule a portion of Montana's law against partner or family member assault are unconstitutional.

According to rulings by Justice of the Peace Stormy Langston and District Judge James Wheelis the state's definition of partners, in relation to domestic assaults, violates the 14th Amendment.  That amendment guarantees equal rights and protection to all people. 

A defense attorney in Eureka said that wasn't fair to his heterosexual client who was accused of beating his girlfriend.

Now Langston and Wheelis have signed on to that argument and said the state law is unconstitutional.

According to Montana state law the term "partners" doesn't include people in a same-sex relationship.  This means if an assault occurs in a same-sex relationship the assailant can only be charged with assault and not partner assault. 

The difference is that the second time a person is charged with partner assault it becomes a felony rather than a misdemeanor.  A judge can mandate repeat partner abuse offenders to attend counseling but under the current Montana code repeat same-sex partner assailants can't be charged with a felony or be ordered to counseling. 

So far Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg says no one has challenged the state law but some court workers in Eureka say the decision in this case will change the way future cases are prosecuted.    

Van Valkenburg said partner assaults are not an uncommon problem in Montana.  "It's a very serious problem in our society and we need to do something to try and prohibit those assaults," he said.

Van Valkenburg said if Montanans want partner assault laws changed they will need to push the topic with local legislators.  

To read Montana's current partner assault laws click here.

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