Local advocacy groups and law enforcement are concerned for crime victims after the Idaho Supreme Court ruled that police can’t arrest someone for a misdemeanor unless they have a warrant or witnessed the alleged crime.
“Our ability to protect victims is greatly reduced by this ruling,” Coeur d’Alene Police Chief Lee White said Thursday.
The ruling overturned the conviction of Peter O’Donald Clarke, 44, who was arrested in 2016 after a woman at Honeysuckle Beach in Hayden accused him of groping her. Deputies arrested Clarke for misdemeanor battery, and a search of his backpack and possessions found methamphetamine and marijuana.
Although the misdemeanor was dismissed because of a lack of evidence, Clarke was convicted by a jury of felony drug possession and two misdemeanor drug charges after he unsuccessfully tried to have the evidence suppressed.
Clarke argued it was illegal for a deputy to arrest him for the misdemeanor battery because the officer was not present when the alleged groping occurred, and the arrest was made without a warrant.
The Idaho Supreme Court agreed with Clarke. Justices found no precedent to allow an arrest for a misdemeanor that an officer did not observe.
“Our research has failed to uncover any decision … which held that a peace officer could make a warrantless arrest for an offense committed outside his presence,” according to the June 12 ruling.
White said he’s especially concerned about the impact this ruling might have on victims of domestic violence. Officers responding to domestic violence calls often arrest the person they suspect of committing the violence in order to separate the involved parties and de-escalate the situation.
After the Supreme Court ruling, however, White said officers can no longer make an arrest in some circumstances, nor can they force an alleged perpetrator to leave.
“You have a greater likelihood of getting arrested for a minor misdemeanor that occurs in an officer’s presence than for pushing your wife,” White said. “It’s problematic.”
Officers can make an arrest for felony battery if a “traumatic injury” occurs, such as a black eye, White said. But if there are no visible injuries and officers did not witness the alleged crime, it’s often a “he said, she said” where each person’s account of what happened is considered equal.
In those cases, officers can only issue a ticket or seek a warrant. Either option leaves the alleged victim in a vulnerable position.
“Now you’ve agitated the perpetrator even more by making other people aware of what’s going on,” Safe Passage Violence Prevention Center executive director Chauntelle Lieske said. “The removal of that person ensures the safety of the victim.”
Despite the gravity of the domestic violence accusations, and Idaho law that allows peace officers to intervene in domestic violence situations that occurred without their presence, Justices said that “the extremely powerful policy considerations … must yield to the Idaho Constitution.”
Annie Pelletier Hightower with the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence said the ability to arrest a perpetrator can reduce immediate risk and de-escalate violence in a relationship.
“If law enforcement are not able to do that in some cases, we’re going to have to create solutions as a community on how to support victims of domestic violence,” she said.
That’s where organizations like Safe Passage come in.
Safe Passage helps all survivors of domestic and sexual violence, including children. They offer shelter, counseling, court advocacy and more.
Safe Passage is the only confidential domestic violence shelter in the community. Lieske said she expects the ruling to put a strain on their resources.
“I anticipate getting more calls,” Lieske said. “Our policy is that we will not say no to anyone in danger.”
Domestic violence victims can call the Safe Passage hotline to speak to an advocate, who can connect them with resources, including a place to stay. But if more victims need housing because their abusers can’t be arrested, the logistics can be a challenge.
“We’re already almost always at capacity,” Lieske said. “If our house is full, we’ll often utilize hotels. But we’re going into the summer season. Hotels are going to be booked. Then what are our options?”
Chief White said the potential impact of the ruling is a return to a ’50s and ’60s response toward domestic violence, when law enforcement often issued a ticket and walked away from the situation. Lieske expressed the same concern.
“It’s putting survivors in an extremely dangerous situation,” she said. “It’s taking us back in time ... People have been murdered because of the way we were responding to domestic violence.”
White said he hopes the ruling gains enough attention that the Legislature revisits the issue.
“We’re trying to determine how this is going to impact our organization and how to serve victims of crime in the meantime, until this is fixed by the Legislature,” White said. “Our hands are tied.”
Lieske said it’s more important now than ever that the community is aware of what resources are available to domestic violence victims, including Safe Passage.
Safe Passage maintains a 24-hour hotline: 208-664-9303
Safe Passage is also open at 850 N. Fourth St. Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Ralph Bartholdt contributed to this report.