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Abuse Prevention Orders: Abuse and Substantive Dating Relationships

In a recent case, E.C.O. vs. Gregory James Compton (SJC-11259, March 13, 2013), the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court overturned a District Court Judge's extension of a G.L. c. 209A Abuse Prevention Order in favor of a 16-year-old girl whose father obtained a restraining order against a 24-year-old man, with whom the daughter was involved while she was traveling abroad.  In doing so, the court shed some more light on legal standards in obtaining abuse prevention orders in general.

The daughter met the defendant while traveling overseas with her family. She initially lied to the defendant about her age.  The defendant and the daughter spent time together touring in Europe. After the daughter arrived back in Massachusetts, she and the defendant engaged in email, text and instant messaging communication. Their communication was ongoing, consensual, and it demonstrated a mutual attraction between them. The defendant made plans to visit Boston, stay in a hotel, and the two of them discussed the time that they would have together and the intimacy they would share. 

By the time the defendant made arrangements to travel to Boston the daughter had already informed the defendant of her true age.   The defendant indicated knowledge that the daughter was old enough to provide consent, and the two of them proceeded with their relationship.  Just prior to the defendant's arrival in Boston, the daughter's father filed a complaint for protection under G.L. c. 209A. The defendant was served while he was staying at the hotel where he planned to spend time with the daughter. The District Court judge in the case extended the restraining order for a year, and the defendant appealed.

On appeal, the restraining order was overturned. Basically, the Supreme Judicial Court found that there was no abuse as required by statute. The court explained that the definition of abuse under G.L. c. 209A, Section 1(b) is similar to the common-law definition of the crime of assault.  The question is whether the defendant's conduct placed the daughter in reasonable apprehension that the defendant might physically abuse her. 

The court concluded that the defendant's conduct did not meet the definition of abuse under the statute, and therefore it failed to serve as a basis for issuing the extension order. Once the court resolved the case by finding that there was no abuse as required by statute, it did not need to go a step further and address the defendant's argument that there was no substantive dating relationship between the defendant and the daughter. 

Nonetheless, the court laid out the four factors that must be considered in determining whether a substantive dating relationship exists. Those factors include:  (1) the length of time of the relationship; (2) the type of relationship; (3) the frequency of interaction between the parties; and (4) if the relationship has been terminated by either person, the length of time elapsed since the termination of the relationship. 

Under the circumstances of this particular case, the court concluded that a substantive dating relationship was established.  The court stated that had the defendant threatened to harm the daughter (rather than seeking to engage in consensual sexual relationship with her while she is of an age when she is legally able to provide consent), G.L. c. 209A and abuse prevention orders should be available to protect her.

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