With one exception, none of them had a prior record, and the exception is barely one: the charge was dropped. But over the weekend, the four men and one woman, all ordinary, middle aged or retired family members–three fathers, a mother, a boyfriend–found themselves booked at the Flagler County jail on domestic violence charges.
All of them spent a night in jail probably wondering how they ended up there, though three of them didn’t even dispute the fact that some violence had taken place. They likely had not expected that they would end up facing a criminal charge.
Arrests have been slightly down in Flagler County in the last few weeks as bars and restaurants have closed and the coronavirus emergency has kept people home. But domestic violence incidents overall have not diminished, Sheriff Rick Staly has said on several occasions, even though in many cases deputies are able to defuse situations before they get to the point of arrest. So arrests are down, but incidents are not.
In actual numbers, Staly said this afternoon that domestic violence arrests this year were down 8.15 percent through the first week of April, compared with the same period last year (86 arrests this year, compared with 94 in 2019), but domestic violence cases are up very slightly, from 132 cases last year to 134 this year.
“What I would ask spouses and people finding themselves in this situation,” Staly said in an interview this afternoon, “is before where it becomes physical blows, you need to call us, let us see if we can de-escalate, intervene before it gets out of control and we have to make an arrest, or somebody gets seriously hurt.”
The directive to keep the difficulties of the Covid-19 emergency in mind has been reaffirmed to deputies at the sheriff’s briefings.
“What we’ve done is remind the deputies to use their training on de-escalation,” the sheriff said, “that the community has fear and concerns for the unknown and loss of employment. Loss of income is going to put additional stressors on the family unit, and to keep that in mind when you are investigating these cases. It’s not as clear cut as your typical battery violence cases now because we have all these additional pressure on the family unit. So de-escalate as much as you can. But clearly, when there’s an injury, an arrest is going to be made. That’s why it’s so important to call us before it goes out of control. We’re not looking to arrest people. We’d much rather deescalate.”
When it becomes physical, deputies have little choice but to make an arrest.
The past weekend saw a spate of domestic violence and battery arrests. The incidents cannot be directly connected to stay-home orders. But because of the shared characteristics of all five individuals arrested (no prior records, no unusual motives, no weapons involved in any of the incidents, but child witnesses in two of the five incidents), the incidents are as likely as not the collateral result of couples, families and even neighbors cooped up with each other for weeks on end, with no clear sense of when the emergency will lift.
“We’re not looking to arrest people. We’d much rather deescalate.”
Another collateral consequence of these arrests: in every single case, the men and women, while typically released on their own recognizance, without bond–both because the judges don’t want to overb urden the jail with inmates, and because the cases don’t call for unnecessary incarceration–the law gives judges no discretion in certain regards: those released on pre-trial conditions are ordered to have no contact with their alleged victims. That means, for most, no going home, and having to find alternative shelter. At times like now, it’s not as simple as calling a hotel–an impossible expense for individuals who must ask for public defenders–or even reaching out to other family members or friends, who have their own anxieties about self-isolation.
The weekend’s five cases are detailed below, without disclosing the names of the individuals: they each face only misdemeanor charges, and none, with one exception, had been criminally charged before.
A 53-year-old resident of Whitman Place with no prior record got in an argument with his 43-year-old wife and allegedly slapped her several times before leaving the house late Monday night. The couple’s three children–11, 13 and 16–were at the house, the alleged slaps having taken place in the younger child’s room, in front of all three children.
Though she had a small laceration behind the ear and a visible trickle of blood running down her neck, according to the man’s arrest report, his wife did not want to pursue charges, but Florida law leans towards arrest when law enforcement determines that there is probable cause that an incident of domestic violence has taken place. (A deputy attributed the laceration to the earring the woman wore, and the force with which her husband struck her on that side of the face.)
When deputies reached the man by phone, he told them he was on his way to the county courthouse to provide his account of the incident, though it was close to midnight. (The sheriff’s office has its temporary headquarters at the courthouse.) A deputy told him to return home. The man later allegedly admitted to a deputy that the confrontation and the slaps had taken place. He was booked at the Flagler County jail on a misdemeanor domestic battery charge, and the Department of Children and Families was contacted, since children were present during the altercation.
He was released on his own recognizance, meaning no bond. But a judge ordered that for the duration of pre-trial proceedings, he was to have no contact with the victim. In normal times, that may not be as much of an issue. But during the coronavirus emergency, such no-contact orders raise new challenges.
Seven years ago the 62-year-old resident of Wood Ash Lane in Palm Coast had been arrested for a domestic battery against his live-in girlfriend when the two were driving and allegedly exchanged slaps. The charge was dropped. On Monday night the man was again arrested when he allegedly punched a man who was outside walking his dog. The alleged victim’s dog was being attacked by a neighbor’s dog, the alleged victim was protecting the dog–according to the alleged victim’s account–and at that point the 62-year-old man approached him and allegedly punched him.
The 62-year-old man told deputies he’d just been taking out the trash with his dogs, that a fight between the dogs did take place, but that he sent the dogs back into the house, without an altercation with the neighbor. He was arrested and booked on a misdemeanor battery charge, released on his own recognizance, and ordered to have no contact with the neighbor during pre-trial proceedings.
The same evening, deputies were called to a house on Pine Hurst Lane, where a 66-year-old woman was alleged to have been in an altercation with her 27-year-old daughter. They had struggled over a necklace the younger woman wanted from her mother’s room. The older woman allegedly “became enraged,” according to her arrest report. There was grabbing, pushing, slapping, and as the pair continued to struggle over the necklace and moving through the house, a dog bit the mother on her right foot in what the arrest report terms “a possible act of defense.”
The two ended up outside the house, and the older woman called 911. The younger woman had bruising and lacerations on her arm, the report states, “appearing consistent with offensive wounds from someone digging nails into someone’s skin.” Deputies determined that the older woman was the primary aggressor, and arrested her. She had no prior record. As with the incident on Whitman Place, the younger woman’s two children were in the house at the time of the altercation, and they witnessed the incident. DCF was called.
As in the previous cases, the woman was released on her own recognizance, and the same no-contact orders were put in place, which means the woman could not go back to her house if that’s where the alleged victim is living. Another characteristic of these cases: a public defender was appointed for the woman, who could not afford a private attorney.
Sunday night, the 911 center got a hangup from a house on Birchwood Drive in Palm Coast. As always with such hangups, sheriff’s deputies investigate. A woman answered the door. Two children who appeared scared were behind her, according to a sheriff’s report. They were the wife and two children of a 49-year-old man. One of the children had called 911 at his mother’s urging.
She had been sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee. She told deputies her husband had been drinking and was becoming belligerent toward her. He then grabbed her and she nearly fell had it not been for him holding on to her. She said they’d never had a physical altercation in over 11 years of marriage, though they had come to the conclusion that they’d be divorcing some time back. Even then, arguments had been merely verbal, until Sunday night.
The man conceded to deputies that he was drunk, maybe loud and obnoxious, as he put it to them. But he “did not want to speak about anything that occurred with anyone in the home or why 911 had been called,” and when pressed for details, he told deputies to ask the children: they were the ones who’d called 911.
The woman, who had bruises, declined medical attention. She did not want to provide a statement, either. The man, who had no prior record, was arrested and booked at the Flagler County jail. In the morning he was released on his own recognizance, and ordered not to have any contact with his wife and no communications of any kind with her, text messages included. He could not go back to his house without the supervision of a sheriff’s deputy, and even then, just to retrieve belongings once.
Until early Sunday morning (not long after midnight), the closest brush with the law for the 52-year-old resident of Birdseye Place in Palm Coast had been a traffic ticket last July: he’d not been wearing his seat belt. He’d also had a parking ticket in Flagler Beach. But that early morning he found himself getting booked at the Flagler County jail on a domestic violence charge.
It was the result of the most innocuous trigger: his 49-year-old girlfriend of four years had woken up to the sound of his voice telling her to move over. She’d told him she’d moved over as much as she could. So when she didn’t move, he allegedly elbowed her. He got up to use the bathroom. Returning, he got angrier, allegedly grabbed her by the neck. “Pushed her into her pillow and then struck her in the face,” according to his arrest report.
The confrontation got more violent, with elbowing, pushing and kicking until she fell out of the bed. She got up, told her boyfriend that she was calling 911, and left the room. The man told deputies that it was she who’d woken him up, wanting more room in the bed, and that they’d argued about who should move over, but that nothing physical had happened.
He was arrested, booked at the jail, released–not on his own recognizance, but on $1,500 bond, the only weekend domestic violence booking to have a bond. It wasn;t that his incident was any different than any of the others: like the others, he had no prior convictions, no arrests (except for the man with the one dropped charge), nothing more distinctive about the charge he faces, or even the circumstances of the incident. If anything, it had not been witnessed by any children.
The difference? The judge. First appearance in the four other cases took place before County Judge Melissa Diustler and Circuit Judge Terence Perkins, who have 20 years on the bench between them, and memories leaden with domestic violence cases in all their permutations. In the case of the man at the center of the bed incident, his first appearance was before Andrea Totten, the rookie county judge on the bench just a few months. She went by the book.
“This is like a hurricane that is taking a very long time to go away,” Sheriff Staly said. “You see these kind of emotions during a hurricane, but this is going on for three weeks now, almost four, and I see now we’re back at peaking at the original date of May 3.” He was referring to the expected peak of Covid-19 demand on the state’s health care infrastructure, an indicator of the peak of coronavirus activity. “So we still have another three weeks to go before we get to the original peak in Florida, as long as it doesn’t slip anymore.”