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Marsy’s Card,’ lethality screening designed to help victims

POLSON – The Lake County Sheriff’s Office and other area law enforcement agencies are implementing a new procedure to better comply with  a new victim’s rights law, although the law was put on hold on Friday.

Marsy’s Law is a citizens’ initiative that was overwhelmingly approved by voters last November. 

The sheriff’s office and Polson and Ronan police department officers were to begin handing out a “Marsy’s Card” paper to alleged crime victims last week, officials say. The law was to take effect Saturday, July 1. In addition, a lethality screening will help domestic violence victims identify whether they are at high risk of injury or death by a partner. 

The “Marsy’s Card” effort resulted from the work of the Lake County Attorney and Sheriff along with the Safe Harbor domestic violence shelter. It is based on a sample from the state attorney general’s office. 

The “card,” which is actually a piece of paper, includes 19 victim’s rights that were added to the state Constitution as a result of the initiative. Among them is the right to receive a pre-sentence report before any defendant is sentenced. The paper also includes contact information for local law enforcement agencies, courts, jails, prosecutors’ offices and Safe Harbor. 

Deputy county prosecuting attorney Brendan McQuillan said the county attorney’s office already communicated with crime victims but the new procedure helps with those efforts. 

Lake County Attorney Steve Eschenbacher said a lawsuit against Marsy’s Law is pending before the state Supreme Court. The suit – which was filed by the ACLU and joined by the Montana Association of Counties, the Montana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and others, says the law brings unintended consequences, including financial impacts, to the criminal justice system. 

Lethality screening added

In conjunction with the “Marsy’s Card,” LCSO officers were to begin filling out a lethality screening form with alleged domestic violence victims. Answering the form will let the alleged victim and officials know if someone is at high risk of being violently injured or killed. 

McQuillan said filling out the form correctly has a 98 percent effectiveness rate at identifying domestic violence abusers. 

Some of the 12 questions include: “Has he/she ever used a weapon against you or threatened you with a weapon; Has he/she threatened to kill you or your children; Do you think he/she might try to kill you; Has he/she ever tried to choke you; and Do you have a child that he/she knows is not his/hers.” 

Positive answers to the first three questions automatically triggers a referral to Safe Harbor; answering “yes” to four of the remaining nine questions triggers a referral, even if the first three answers are “no.” 

The lethality screening is “more structured” and helps ensure nothing slips through the cracks, LCSO Sgt. Glenn Miller said. 

“It increases the likelihood of engagement with social services” and helps in making arguments related to the setting of bond for defendants, McQuillan said. 

The idea for the lethality screening sprouted in August 2016, he said. On Friday, June 30, the state Supreme Court put Marsy’s Law on hold until the lawsuit challenging its constitutionality is resolved.

 

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