The cost of safety: filing for a restraining order in California
January 16, 2017
Some of you who follow me on Twitter will have seen some bits about this already, but I thought I’d share the unpleasant experience that derailed my last week. You know the horrible neighbor who escalated to making threats? He came back. Yes, that’s AFTER the police told him that we hadn’t done anything wrong and that he needed to stay away from us.
Utterly exasperated by his increasingly aggressive behavior, I called the police again, and on that visit they strongly recommended that I visit the superior court to file for a civil harassment restraining order. They told me that they would again advise him to leave us alone. If we file that order and he harasses us again, he’s subject to arrest.
I tried searching online but the only information that I could find on the process was the Clerk’s office hours, so I packed my bags and headed out, much to Seamus’s concern and dismay. He doesn’t like it when I abandon him immediately after his breakfast, it disrupts our whole routine. I don’t like it either, pup! So here’s how the day went…
Step one: Get the paperwork
My first visit to the Hall of Justice took an hour and all I was able to do was pick up a quarter-inch thick stack of paperwork. The very bored clerk instructed me to fill out 15 pages, then return at 2 pm to see the judge. Totally inefficient! I could have just downloaded this paperwork online and saved myself a trip! But that would mean someone would have had to organize the documents with instructions, and put in updates for the judge’s court house. Somehow I doubt anyone’s inspired to make life easier that way.
But paging through the documents, I could see there was information that would be easier to provide from the comfort of home, so off I headed to get a few hours of work done and complete the packet.
There was a lot of repetition as I filled out the confidential information with my personal information, and the restrained person’s information that I knew, then transferred much of that to the three documents that would go to the court, one of which would go to the restrained person informing him that he was under a temporary restraining order. They asked for an extraordinary amount of information: his height, weight, hair color, eye color, date of birth, full name, phone number, email address, place of business, hours of work, type of car, license plates. I understand why they want to be as detailed as possible to be sure they’re identifying the right person but who asks their harasser for their birth date? I don’t even give that out to colleagues I like.
They asked about the latest incident, then for the history of the incidents. This is where my experience as a manager, or watching way too many episodes of Bones, NCIS, and courtroom dramas, came into play. As much as I wanted to shred all physical evidence of his attacks on us, feeling like they were a contaminant in our home, I filed them away. The ones that I did discard were documented in emails, so we had dated documentation, as well as physical evidence of his escalations, and I didn’t involve the police until a clear threat was made. That made it easy to carefully, and as dispassionately as possible, describe the incidents for the filing, taking extra pages as allowed, to clearly establish the pattern.
The keys the judge needed to file in our favor was a clear or compelling threat of violence or harm, or a history of harassment, both of which I was able to provide with my records at my fingertips. The threat of harm was also the reason that both the filing and the service of the restraining order by the sheriff were free.
Step two: See the judge
Back I went to court for the 2 pm courtroom hearing. I didn’t know what to expect so I’d come prepared with the filing, my written proof, a battery pack for my phone, and a book. The judge stayed in chambers the entire time, and a lawyer would present each case to her for a decision. It was a relatively efficient way to process the dozen cases presented in the 90 minutes allotted for “ex parte” cases. Mine was dead last so I waited for an hour and 20 minutes before the attorney came to ask some clarification questions.
I had to explain our neighborhood geography and the timing of the threatening note, but otherwise the judge was satisfied to grant a temporary restraining order good until we have a formal hearing at the end of the month. I can’t tell you what a huge sigh of relief that was, at least for a few weeks, to know that we have *some* recourse if he comes to harass us again.
Step three: File the paperwork
With the signed paperwork in hand, I had three more destinations. If only I’d known, I might have worn my running shoes!
- Clerk’s office for filing. Quick pause for me to drop off the papers and run out into the cold, pay the meter, and run back in and go back through security for the third time that day. The clerk took 20 minutes to process my paperwork
- Then off to the Sheriff’s office for another 40 minutes of paperwork and filing so that they’ll actually serve the orders.
- You’d think I’d be done, having hit every floor of the courthouse, but no, I had to then drive to our local PD and give them the paperwork to file as well.
Temporary restraining orders are only effective after the restrained person has been served so you have three choices: pay a process server ($20-100) to serve them, have the sheriff serve them (free if there’s threat of violence), or ask any adult over the age of 18 to serve them. That last was a new one on me – as long as the adult isn’t a named protected person in the paperwork, and are willing to fill out the proof of service form which you also have to schlep to the police department, you can just ask a friend to do it.
Alas, I have no friends in the area that I would be willing to ask to serve in this capacity and I wasn’t about to involve either set of coworkers’ in our home issues, so I had to leave it up to the sheriff.
The frustrating thing about that is that the sheriff’s office prefers to wait 1-2 weeks to even try to serve the papers so the neighbor still doesn’t know he’s subject to a restraining order right now. Thankfully, the police department informed me that should he harass us again, they will serve the papers while they respond to the call. They won’t take the initiative to serve the papers since that’s rightfully the county sheriff’s job, but they have a copy of the paperwork in case they have to respond to a call in the meantime.
Step four: Go home and collapse
The entire ordeal, from the morning visit to the last visit to the police department, involved 75 miles of driving and 7 hours of my day.
The courthouse is only open between Monday through Friday, 8 am to 5 pm. Between the business hours, and all time required to pass each hurdle, the process of getting even sketchy legal protection is incredible. When I worked the night shift, I would have been hard-pressed to be able to manage this. I was able to take the time to deal with it but I paid a huge physical toll the following several days, in exhaustion and pain, which I’m still reeling from. Hiring a lawyer to deal with all of this was an option, according to the paperwork, that just emphasizes how money buys you privilege.
Step five: Go to the actual hearing (pending)
This happens in three weeks.
This is where the judge decides whether to keep the restraining order and for how long it stands. I don’t know how this part will go, I’m unhappy at the prospect that he’s going to show up to the hearing and I’ll have to deal with him there. The filing states he’s not allowed to communicate to me there, and I’m not precisely afraid of him but I’m highly concerned because we’re fully cognizant that he is not operating within the bounds of civility and has been happy to defy authority to continue to harass us. He may escalate as a result of the hearing or after the hearing. Fat lot of comfort it’ll be that he can be arrested if he manages to hurt one of us or damage our property.
It makes me wonder how people who are subjected to less clear-cut harassment manage to get any protection. And so far, our harasser has not been the brightest bulb in the lot. Most harassers are smarter than to be writing up their intentions and literally handing them to their targets, and most are smarter than to admit to the police that they ARE doing the harassment they’re accused of. He actually tried to justify it!
It seemed more prudent to wait until this was all over, or at least the hearing is, before posting about it but I really could use all the good positive thoughts because the fact that this isn’t going to be over for a long time keeps repeating in my head.
The judge could rule to discontinue the restraining order, and he would feel emboldened to escalate further. The judge could rule to keep it in place, and he could choose to violate it. Whatever happens, the headache continues.
We’re thinking about security systems but this mess honestly made me go look at homes online again and debate whether it’s worth spending the kind of money we’d have to spend to put miles between us and this guy.
The fact that nothing guarantees our next neighbors won’t be just as bad is holding me back, along with the horror of a new mortgage, but it’s coming down to a matter of safety.
Update to add step six: realize that a restraining order isn’t protection
Four days after he was told to leave us alone and that a restraining order was forthcoming, he left another threatening note hinting that the officers have to go on vacation “anytime now.” He’s so fixated on his revenge and bullying – as if we live in Mayberry and we only have one sheriff and deputy, and boy howdy when they go on vacation the rest of us citizens should quake in our boots because he’s coming after us! There ARE other police officers.
He’s been served with the order as a result of that note. The next time he approaches us, or attempts to contact us, he’ll be arrested.
Nevertheless, I don’t take any confidence from that because a) I doubt he’s going to be prosecuted unless he does something egregious that we can prove was him. We’re working on that, but b) he’s clearly flung all common sense to the winds and I’m not about to become a statistic.
It utterly upends our saving and retirement planning but our family’s safety is most important so we’re moving up our timeline on moving. If it were for any other reason, we’d tough it out, but it’s now about the safety of our family. How many times have you heard people say, “I knew he was mad but I didn’t think he’d go that far”?
Folks, I believe he would go every bit as far as you can imagine if he can find a way. He’s got all hours of the day free to plot, and he’s obviously using them to do so, so we’re marshaling our resources and making plans.
I hate this utter derailment of our financial plans.
My next few months: security and finding a home we can afford.
Naturally, it’s taking a very long time for my latest severe fibro flare to calm down, it’s being fed by several forms of stress. I haven’t taken time off since 2014 and I’ve had to take several days off just to recover. Seamus senses my feelings but thinks that all I need is a 100 lb dog on my lap. Thanks, dog.