State prosecutors are appealing a county justice court’s ruling that Montana’s domestic violence law discriminates against heterosexuals. The judge finds state statute gives less severe punishment for homosexuals convicted of partner assault than for straight people.
Authorities charged defendant Dale Miller with Partner Family Member Assault in May of this year.
“With an incident that happened with his residential, live-in girlfriend,” said Deputy Lincoln County Attorney Joseph Cik, the prosecutor in this case.
County Justice Court Judge Stormy Langston ruled against Cik, dismissing the charges against Miller. Langston agreed with the defense that Montana’s domestic violence law unconstitutionally treats heterosexual partner abuse differently than homosexual partner abuse.
‘Partners’ in the existing law are defined as current or former spouses, people with a common child and people who are currently in an intimate relationship with a person of the opposite sex.
That last bit’s the important part.
“When we talk about criminal law, first of all before someone can be punished for anything the law has to be constitutional,” said Dale Miller’s defense attorney, Tim Baldwin.
Judge Langston agreed the law violates the Equal Protection Clause in both the Montana and U.S. Constitutions.
Attorney Tim Baldwin says the state’s current domestic violence statute was first passed by the Montana Legislature in the mid-1980s. He does not think leaving out homosexual couples in the law was an oversight. In fact, he sees it as the opposite.
“I think what they were probably trying to do at the time was prevent any sort of acknowledgment or recognition that homosexual partners have any legitimacy,” Baldwin said.
Deputy Lincoln County Attorney Joseph Cik agrees that the statute’s definition of ‘partners’ creates some problems. He’s worried about the precedent this case will create though, for future domestic violence crime.
“It sets bad case law,” Cik said.
He’s appealing the ruling to district court. The state’s position is the statute as currently written is not unjustly punishing defendant Dale Miller.
“He’s not harmed in a way that…makes this type of relief available to him,” Cik said.
Defense Attorney Tim Baldwin is himself running as a Republican for the Montana House of Representatives. He says the law needs to be changed.
“I think it would be principally a hypocritical position to say that homosexual partnerships would not be included within this statute,” he said.
Yet, until the law is changed, Baldwin will continue to argue his client is being accused of violating an unconstitutional law.
A District Court Hearing has been set for September 10th