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Pennsylvania

ACLU objects to Pennsylvania's protection-from-abuse monitoring proposal

| Friday, Dec. 15, 2017, 7:24 p.m.
Alina Sheykhet
Alina Sheykhet

A proposed state law that would use electronic monitoring to try to protect people who have obtained protection-from-abuse orders is raising alarms at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which says the law would hamper the freedom of people who haven't been convicted of any crime.

The proposal, which the state Senate approved on a 50-0 vote Tuesday, would allow judges to require electronic monitoring of people with PFA orders against them.

“That's just basically one step below house arrest for those people,” said Nyssa Taylor, ACLU Pennsylvania's criminal justice policy counsel. “That's an extraordinary restriction on someone's liberty without due process.”

Senators named the proposal “Alina's Law,” after Alina Sheykhet, the 20-year-old Pitt student who was killed Oct. 2. Sheykhet obtained a PFA against ex-boyfriend Matthew Darby, 21, before he allegedly killed her. Darby is charged with homicide in her death.

Less than three weeks before Darby is alleged to have killed Sheykhet, police charged him with criminal trespassing after they said he climbed a downspout and broke into Sheykhet's home. That incident prompted Sheykhet to seek the PFA.

State Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, a co-sponsor of the proposal, said the legislation could help protect people like Sheykhet, noting that Darby faced rape charges in another case in Indiana County at the time of her death.

“To me those are all potential signs that a judge could look at and say electronic monitoring would be appropriate in this type of situation,” Costa said, adding that a judge would not be required to order monitoring.

Electronic monitoring typically comes up during sentencing, after a person has been found guilty of a crime, or during bail hearings, if a person is thought to be a flight risk, the ACLU's Taylor said. PFAs often are granted much earlier in the legal process, and allowing a judge to order monitoring at that stage would deprive people with PFAs against them of fundamental legal protections, she said.

People can seek preliminary PFAs until a final PFA is granted. The law would provide for devices such as ankle bracelets to be used by police to track the location of a person with a PFA against them for up to three years. They would be prevented from getting close to a protected person's home, business or places they frequent.

Costa said he thinks the language of the bill would also allow a judge to order monitoring under a preliminary PFA, but that language is more loosely written.

Taylor said the law could also create a false sense of safety among people who have sought and obtained PFAs. Someone with an ankle monitor could cut it off, she said.

Costa acknowledged a determined abuser could get around the proposed law's protections, but described it as a step forward.

“I just think it's a common-sense tool to give to our judges that would provide, in my view, greater protections for victims of domestic violence, and to minimize the number of times a person could be victimized,” Costa said.

Having passed the Senate, the bill will go to a House committee, where the ACLU plans to raise its objections, Taylor said.

Across the state, 38,764 new PFA applications were filed in 2016. Of those, nearly 89 percent were granted. Last year, 102 domestic violence victims were killed across the state.

In Allegheny County, 94 percent of the 3,765 requested PFAs were granted in 2016. Nine county residents were killed by domestic violence in that time.

The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence supports the legislation.

“We appreciate that the state Senate has acknowledged the risks to victims of domestic violence through this bill and other legislation currently under review that is intended to provide additional protections to victims,” Director of Public Affairs Julie Bancroft said in a statement.

Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676 or wventeicher@tribweb.com.

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