Coordinated Community Responses to Domestic Violence in Six Communities: Beyond the Justice System. The Minnesota Legal Environment


Minnesota provides a significant amount of statewide direction and support to counties and regions in their efforts to address domestic violence, which has been a factor in both the Carlton County and Northern St. Louis County responses to domestic violence. There is a state level coordinating council and region-wide coordinating bodies as well. Many of the members of the Carlton County domestic violence community attend these regional quarterly meetings on a regular basis. The meetings provide exposure to ideas from other jurisdictions and an opportunity to network.

The state of Minnesota has a number of laws that directly affect how domestic violence is handled at different levels of the system. State law gives localities the option of adopting a mandatory arrest policy, and allows arrest on probable cause. Prior to this law, domestic violence offenses could be handled only as misdemeanors—requiring a citizen's arrest which placed the burden on the victim, or as felonies—requiring that the arresting officer be present at the assault itself and that the assault be severe enough to warrant a felony charge. The time frame for probable cause arrest was recently increased from the original 4 hours to 12 hours prior to law enforcement contact. Lengthening the period within which an officer can make an arrest from 4 to 12 hours was also a big improvement from the point of view of the law enforcement officials interviewed. Now the responding officer has time to investigate what has happened and find the offender if he has left the scene and make an arrest.

Criminal statutes also define domestic violence as a crime; prescribe levels and criteria for misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor and felony charges; and provide for enhancing a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor if it is a second offense. Other state laws allow judges to order offenders into treatment (batterers' intervention), which translates on the Range into courts ordering virtually all batterers into treatment, whether they are subject to civil orders for protection or to criminal charges. Case law, and subsequently state statute, says that judges must consider the presence of domestic violence in the home when deciding child custody cases, and must not order mediation for couples when domestic violence is a factor.

In addition to statutes affecting domestic violence cases, the Minnesota Supreme Court has been active on the issue in a number of ways. It has ruled that judges must grant advocates access to courtrooms, allow them to sit at counsel table with the woman and speak with her during court proceedings, and that this is not "the unauthorized practice of law." It has required all judges in the state to attend training specifically on domestic violence, spousal maintenance, custody, and divorce settlements, which advocates and judges alike say has had significant impact on judicial behavior in these cases. Further, it has charged judges in each judicial district to be active on violence issues (to "come out of chambers") and has asked judges to take the lead in setting up councils in their districts to address issues of family violence and violence prevention more generally. Finally, a statewide data system allowing judges access to information on current and past civil and criminal involvement of every party to a particular case is only a few months away from full implementation. The data system is a response to the results of focus groups of judges held about five years ago to address the issue of what judges need in order to be able to do a better job.