Bill would create Web site of domestic violence convicts

In today’s world, running Google searches on romantic prospects is de rigueur. But a San Francisco Assemblywoman wants Californians to have access to some less-readily available information before they get involved in a new relationship.

Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, and San Francisco prosecutor Jim Hammer have introduced a bill to require the attorney general to track domestic violence offenders. The database would be similar to the searchable online database of sex offenders currently available on the attorney general’s Web site.

The new site would be a bit like a CARFAX report on potential suitors, where women and men could check a person’s past convictions for domestic abuse before getting intimately involved. Unlike the sex offender registry, the site would not include photos of the offenders listed.

The registry would display individuals convicted of crimes involving abuse in intimate relationships. Citing years of experience as a prosecutor, Hammer said domestic predators often tend to backslide into former patterns of physical and emotional abuse with new partners. Ideally, said Hammer, the new bill would cut these harmful relationships off before they begin, or “the first time someone does something creepy.”

Under AB1771, the attorney general would compile data of felony or multiple misdemeanor domestic abuse convictions from the county court where the crime was tried, and places the documents onto a Web site, including the name of the offender, the county where the crime occurred, and the date of the crime. The database would also include the offender’s middle name and date of birth.

Backers say these additional components would eliminate the chance of misidentification for people with common names.

Unlike Megan’s Law, which requires registration by the offenders themselves, each domestic violence conviction would stay posted on the site for 10 years before being removed. Local courts would provide the information to the Department of Justice.

In 2006, there were 17,300 domestic violence convictions in California.

In an attempt to avoid using public funding, authors of the bill hope to finance the Web site by charging the criminals themselves by tacking maintenance costs onto the fines for inclusive crimes.

But there are still questions over who will be footing the bill.

“Of course taxpayer dollars (will be needed),” said Janet Neeley, deputy attorney general. “If the Department of Justice is overlooking a new registry, we will ask Legislature for funding to do so.”

A spokesman for Ma said she is waiting for the Justice Department to estimate the cost of creating and maintaining the Web site.

The registry would not require any new disclosures. The goal is simply to make existing public records more accessible. Currently, if someone wants to look up an individual’s past convictions, they have to go to the county where they suspect the crime was committed and search the local courthouse records. With AB1771, they could find out about a spotty past just by searching a person’s name on the Internet.

Beth Hassett, executive director of Women Empowered Against Violence, or WEAVE, said she generally supports any tools for to help potential victims of domestic abuse, but she says she needs more information about the bill before WEAVE will endorse it.
She has a few concerns, principally that an online database may “out” victims who wish to stay anonymous. “Unfortunately, (victims) are sometimes embarrassed about such crimes,” she said.

Currently, public records reveal victims’ names in domestic violence complaints.

Hammer said that finding a way to omit a victim’s name on a court record is a priority. Fully disclosed public records, he said, could discourage women from coming forward.

“I think it is a legitimate concern that is going to be addressed in context of this bill,” he said.
As for an offender’s right to privacy, however, Hammer feels differently.

“Domestic violence is not private,” he said. “Beating up women is not private. This idea that committing a felony of domestic violence should be kept private is a non sequitur.”

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