THERMOPOLIS — In Wyoming, a person can theoretically get 10 years behind bars for keying a car. But if he strangles his wife, he faces just five years, a prosecutor told lawmakers Thursday.
If someone beats up a person on the street, she faces a year of probation. Yet if she batters her spouse and kids, the law requires only six months of probation, said Brett Johnson, a Natrona County assistant district attorney who specializes in prosecuting domestic violence cases in the Casper area.
Johnson and a handful of attorneys, judges and victim-rights advocates testified before the Joint Judiciary Committee on Thursday in Thermopolis about weaknesses in domestic violence laws – including stalking, battery and the lack of statutes adding penalties when domestic violence is committed in the presence of children in Wyoming.
The committee is studying domestic violence laws in the months before the 2018 legislative session. Lawmakers listened to testimony and asked questions. They didn’t take action on the issue. The committee may draft legislation to strengthen the laws in future meetings. But committee chairman Sen. Leland Christensen said more information needs to be gathered first.
Johnson recommended the Legislature increase penalties for strangulation and domestic battery and assault.
In Wyoming, domestic violence isn’t taken as seriously as other types of violence, he said.
“It sort of the step-child in criminal law,” he said.
Many states have enhanced penalties in domestic violence cases when committed in the presence of children. Wyoming does not — despite research showing that children who live in violent homes grow up to abuse alcohol and drugs at higher rates, suffer from mental health issues and perpetuate violence or become victims, Johnson said.
Most states also have domestic violence statutes that criminalize creating fear of causing bodily injury, he said. The idea behind such laws is that one beating causes so much trauma that the victim lives in fear of being physically harmed in the future over slight confrontations with her significant other, Johnson said.
“Once you have beat up your partner, you’ve strangled them or thrown them on the floor and kicked them, you don’t have to do that again necessarily,” he said.
Tara Muir, public policy director for the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, asked lawmakers to form a subcommittee to explore forming a holistic law on domestic violence.
Lawmakers didn’t indicate whether they would form a such a group.
John Knepper, the chief deputy at the Wyoming Attorney General’s office, advised lawmakers to not think about how someone may or may not lose their gun rights when convicted on domestic violence charges as legislators craft new laws.
Most likely, people convicted of domestic violence-related crimes will not get their gun rights back, since the federal government’s background check system has rejected offenders in recent years — even if their crimes were not misdemeanors or felonies. The courts have upheld the government’s actions.
“Recent decisions by the United States Supreme Court have broadened the application of the federal gun restriction,” he said. “State laws have been much less effective on these restrictions. The federal courts have been instructed to look at the actions that took place, rather than the state statutes.”
Twelve men and two women serve on the Judiciary Committee.
It takes a significant amount of imagination for men to even comprehend what women in domestic violence situations experience, said Judge Tom Harrington, who presides over cases in Washakie, Hot Springs and Big Horn counties.
“I would encourage the men on this committee and in the Legislature to get educated on these issues,” he said. “Discuss these issues with women. Imagine the terror they go through.”