If New Orleans Rep. Helena Moreno succeeds in her latest attempt to update the state’s domestic violence law, she may very well have to thank a wife-beater for overcoming the gun lobby’s lock on the Louisiana Legislature.
Earlier this year legislators were up to their necks in a drama of their own making when Troy Brown refused to leave the state Senate simply because he pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors: beating up his girlfriend, then a few months later biting his wife. He resigned Feb. 16, a few days before what promised to be an embarrassing Senate expulsion hearing.
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But for months Brown had argued that he shouldn’t have to give up his seat for pleading no contest to crimes Louisiana legally equated to spitting on the sidewalk.
“To my knowledge and research no other state has removed a sitting senator for a misdemeanor charge,” Brown’s attorney, Jill Craft, said Feb. 15. “My charge to this Legislature is that if you are upset about domestic abuse then, damn it, do something about it. Instead of having it be a misdemeanor that someone can plead no contest to, then make it a felony.”
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Had Brown’s girlfriend been considered a victim of domestic abuse — as she would have been by all of Louisiana’s neighbors and by all but a dozen U.S. states and territories — the attack on his wife would have been a second offense, which would have been a felony and Brown under the state constitution couldn’t serve as an elected official.
Moreno is preparing a bill “to do something about it” when the Legislature convenes April 10.
Currently, domestic abuse battery applies only to “household members,” that is spouses, family members or co-habitants. Moreno said this leaves a huge loophole for intimates who do not live with, are not married to, or are not related to the victim.
Eighty-one percent of the women murdered in this state are killed by their partner or former partner and 48.6 percent of those victims were killed by dating partners, according to the National Coalition against Domestic Violence.
“When violence involves intimate partners, they need to be included in the laws,” said Mary Claire Landry, director of New Orleans Family Justice Center, a victim services center.
Robert M. White, 1st Assistant District Attorney in Plaquemines Parish, said simple battery is aimed more for people who lose their composure and smack each other. Domestic violence is more about power and often escalates to murder so carries stiffer penalties, he said.
Offenders convicted of a first domestic abuse pay a fine, maybe do a little jail time, do some counseling and lose the right to have a firearm. But the hammer falls the second time around with mandatory jail time, harsher fines and no possession of a firearm for up to 10 years.
This means cops have to quit their jobs. Hunters have to find another pastime. And legislators have to leave office.
It’s not like Moreno hasn’t tried before to include “dating partners” among the victims for which a prosecutor can charge under the domestic battery law.
But her efforts ran into stiff opposition from the National Rifle Association and other gun rights lobbies.
The NRA sent a lobbyist to a 2015 hearing before the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice to argue that “dating partner” can be too broadly interpreted and that the 10-year prohibition for possessing a firearm amounted to a curb on the constitutional right to bear arms. With Republicans and the independent representative voting no and Democrats voting yes, the House committee rejected Moreno’s bill.
The NRA’s blessing is one the stations of Louisiana politics. “If you don’t have that NRA seal that’s going to cost you a bunch of votes in a lot of districts,” said Roy Fletcher, who has run dozens of legislative campaigns as a political consultant.
Making laws requires compromise, so Moreno agreed in 2015 to amputate the “dating partner” language to save the rest of the bill.
The NRA did not respond to five phone calls and emails seeking comment about this year’s effort to add “dating partners.”
But in May 2015, a NRA spokeswoman told nola.com that Moreno “should focus on the provisions of the bill that would deter domestic abusers like better enforcement of restraining orders and increased penalties for people who violate restraining orders.”
State Sen. Dan Claitor, the Baton Rouge Republican and former prosecutor who led the effort to oust Brown, says Brown’s example connected the dots for many legislators.
His now-former colleagues in the Louisiana Senate were visibly relieved after Troy Brown’s abrupt resignation Thursday.
“I don’t know how they will vote on it, but I can say the whole issue is no longer abstract for them and that’s because of the former senator Brown,” Claitor said of his colleagues.