By: Rachel Warren
It was just before 1:00 a.m. on Feb. 4 when an NOPD officer responded to a “domestic disturbance” between two LSU sophomores at the Omni Riverbend Hotel in New Orleans.
That night, LSU student Collin Kent allegedly choked his then-girlfriend three times before she attempted to call 911 on the hotel room phone, alerting hotel security.
But the woman’s nightmare didn’t end that night. Kent’s then-girlfriend — who has not been named — and her family were disappointed to learn that while Kent could be prosecuted for simple battery, his case would not be prosecuted as a domestic offense, which carries harsher penalties.
Kent was charged with second-degree murder, which carries a minimum penalty of imprisonment for at least 10 years and no more than 50 years. However, in September, Kent pleaded guilty to three misdemeanors — simple battery, false imprisonment and unauthorized use of a movable.
He received a suspended sentence of six months at the Orleans Justice Center jail, a year of inactive probation and six weeks of drug and alcohol testing and anger management. He was also ordered to refrain from contacting his victim and to pay $745 in court fines and fees.
If Kent had been charged with domestic abuse battery, he would have faced the possibility of imprisonment for at least 10 days and no more than six months. But since the couple wasn’t married, didn’t have children together, and wasn’t living together, the domestic violence statute could not be applied.
Had the event transpired just six months later, the result would likely have been very different. Earlier this year, State Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans introduced a bill to incorporate dating partners into domestic violence statutes. Up until then, the statutes only applied to married couples, couples living together or couples with children together.
The bill, which was signed into law by Gov. John Bel Edwards in June, amended the law to include those in a dating relationship. The law went into effect on Aug. 1.
La. R.S. 46:2151 now defines a dating partner as “any person who is involved or has been involved in a sexual or intimate relationship with the offender characterized by the expectation of affectionate involvement independent of financial considerations, regardless of whether the person presently lives or formerly lived in the same residence with offender.”
The statute specifies that the term does not refer to “a casual relationship or ordinary association between persons in a business or social context.” Nearly all of this wording is new. Most of the law’s original language has been removed. The original wording of the law defined a dating partner as “a person in a social relationship of a romantic and intimate nature.” The law also specified that the existence of a dating partner’s relationship would be determined by three factors: “the length of the relationship; the type of relationship; and the frequency of interaction between the persons involved in the relationship.” The new version of the law omits this wording entirely.
Director of Clinical Legal Education Robert Lancaster said the original wording in the law is more in line with “traditional notions” of dating. “Dating’s changed, but the law hasn’t really kept up,” he said.
Lancaster said online dating and the increasing popularity of dating apps have changed the way people think of relationships. “In a bar, you can tell pretty quickly what a person’s motivations are and there’s kind of an understanding,” Lancaster said. “On dating apps, you can have two different people with different expectations.”
While she doesn’t handle criminal cases, Judge Pamela Baker of the Family Court for East Baton Rouge Parish said she believes the change was necessary because over the years, she’s seen an increasing number of couples choosing not to marry. “It’s a good thing,” she said. “Unfortunately, people don’t tend to get married as much as they used to.”
In addition to amending the definition of dating partners for the purpose of civil protection, Lancaster said the bill created criminal statutes relating to aggravated assault upon a dating partner, La R.S. 14:34.9, and battery of a dating partner, La R.S. 14:34.9.1.
Before Aug. 1, the law allowed for dating partners to acquire civil protection orders after incidents of dating violence. The change to the law didn’t create a new crime, but instead created a heightened penalty based upon the relationship between the people involved.
Under the new law, on a first conviction of battery, an offender will be fined $300-$1,000 and will be imprisoned for at least 30 days and no more than six months. At least 48 hours of that sentence must be served without benefit of parole, probation or suspension of sentence.
Upon conviction of a second offense, an offender will be fined $750-$1,000 and will be imprisoned with or without hard labor for at least 60 days and no more than one year. At least 14 of those days must be served without benefit of parole, probation or suspension of sentence.
If convicted of a third offense, the offender will be fined $2,000 imprisoned with or without hard labor for at least one year and no more than five years. The first year of the sentence must be served without benefit of parole, probation or suspension of sentence.
Conviction of a fourth or subsequent offense will result in a fine of $5,000 and imprisonment with hard labor for at least 10 years and no more than 30 years. The first three years of that sentence must be served without benefit of parole, probation or suspension of sentence.
The new law also includes provisions for specific acts like strangulation, violence against a pregnant partner and burning that results in serious bodily injury.
If the new law had taken effect before Feb. 4 — the night the events took place — Kent would have faced the possibility of imprisonment at hard labor no more than three years — the heightened penalty for strangulation.
In addition, conviction of aggravated assault upon a dating partner carries with it imprisonment at hard labor for at least one year and no more than five years.
Lawmakers’ concerns may be well-founded. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in three women and one in four men in the United States will experience intimate partner violence at some point in their lifetime. In Louisiana, 81 percent of female homicides are committed by a partner or ex-partner. According to LSU’s Annual Security and Fire Report, there were 12 reported instances of dating violence on campus in 2016. That’s almost double the seven instances reported in 2015.
Domestic and dating violence statistics show that strangulation is an accurate predictor of future homicide or attempted homicide. A study published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine in 2008 showed that “the odds of becoming an attempted homicide increased by about seven-fold for women who had been strangled by their partner.”
Of course, there may still be questions left to answer. Since there are so few cases examining the definition of dating partners, Lancaster said the term’s meaning might not be completely clear. Lancaster believes the change in the law will likely lead to an increase in court cases on the subject. “When you have a protection order, those cases don’t really get appealed,” he said. “When you add a criminal context, we’re going to see more cases defining dating partners.”
Until then, Lancaster said it will be interesting to see how courts interpret the new language and apply the new laws. “Does this class of people need to be protected? Yes,” he said. “Can this law be over-extended and over-utilized? Probably so.”