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Missouri allows lifelong protection orders

Judges can now approve lifelong protection orders. The same law — part of a bill passed this year that went into effect Aug. 28 — also adds to the legal definition of stalking and reduces the number of court appearances for both attorneys and their clients over time.

Previously, judges could only extend temporary protection orders up to a year. That wasn’t enough time to keep a former abuser away from some clients, who had to spend money and time in court every year to renew their protection orders.

Susan E. Block, an attorney with Paule, Camazine & Blumenthal and a former family law judge, said it’s now much easier for people to obtain an order of protection than a temporary restraining order or a preliminary injunction, though to win most cases they would still need a lawyer’s help.

“It doesn’t mean that the judges grant them all, but it means that people can actually write them out themselves,” Block said. “Now, they’re not all successful at doing that because they may not understand the requirements of the law (without a lawyer), but they can write it out themselves.”

Under the new law, stalking now includes a perpetrator who follows, monitors, observes, surveils, threatens or communicates to a person in any way — either directly, indirectly or via a third party.

“Clients who file pro se and do not understand the elements of the law, particularly with regard to stalking, may get poor results and have their cases dismissed,” Block said via email. “I am not concerned how it affects our practice area, other than when we have to repair the damage a pro se litigant has done to their case.”

Protection orders now extend to pets and minor household members, and they can last from 2-10 years, though they could be automatically renewed indefinitely in some extreme circumstances. After two years, the protection order can fall if the abuser undergoes rehabilitation and proves to no longer pose a threat.

These orders can now also order the possession of a pet, or request funds to cover medical costs that may have been incurred to treat the abuse of a pet. But commercial animals are not covered under the new protection order expansion.

Steve Bardol from the Bardol Law Firm said that since pets are typically considered property under Missouri case law, this part of the law is somewhat surprising. 

“This is an interesting twist considering the case law that’s out there as far as how pets have been treated in the past,” Bardol said.

For example, Bardol noted that a court awards shared pets to one party in divorce proceedings, just as it would with other forms of property.

But pets have also been threatened in abuse cases, or in disputes between neighbors.

In April, the Court of Appeals Western District reversed three separate orders of protection, filed by a husband and wife and a hired hand who lives in an apartment on the couple’s property. They filed protection orders against the same next-door neighbor who, in addition to other alleged instances, shot the hired hand’s dog. While all three were reversed because none of them could provide at least two instances of stalking, the dog’s shooting affected each case differently.

Ryan Waters of Dodson Waters was the attorney for all three plaintiffs. He said that proving each plaintiff’s fear of physical harm in each situation also swayed the cases.

“Sometimes I don’t think they account for the overall picture, especially when it comes to stalking,” Waters said. “It’s hard to say when some people are fearing for their lives. I think sometimes the objective component is a bit more nuanced and hard to define what is physical injury and what the standards are.”

For the husband’s case, who had felt threatened because he caught the defendant killing the dog, the court considered the dog’s killing as a single potential instance of stalking. But the court ruled that other altercations with the neighbor did not add up to a second instance of stalking that would warrant a protection order.

The court ruled in the wife’s case that the dog’s death did not count as stalking. They considered the fact that she and the hired hand did not fear physical harm since they only heard and did not see the gunshot, and the wife stayed by the fence between the two properties after calling the police. Her testimony for other instances she claimed counted as stalking also failed to prove that she sufficiently feared physical harm.

And in the hired hand’s case, killing her dog did not count as stalking, since the plaintiff did not meet the defendant until after he shot her dog. And her second instance, where the defendant slowed down on the highway beside her car to take pictures of her, did not count as stalking since he was taking pictures of her in a public place.

Waters said that while both parties were exhausted from the time and money spent in court proceedings and have left each other alone since then, the protection orders would have likely been granted under the new law if they went back to court.

“With the new law, with the facts of this case, I would be very confident it would not have been overturned on appeal if the law at the time affected dogs as well,” Waters said.

Josh Sieg was the defendant’s attorney for these cases. He was not available for comment.

The legal definition of stalking in Missouri has now been expanded to a perpetrator threatening or harming minor household members who formerly or currently live with the victim. But Block said that judges would only accept the most serious cases that fall under the Missouri Adult Abuse Act, not cases dealing with minor life annoyances.

“They do want to have the more serious cases, not just people who don’t get along,” Block said. “So there’s not always a remedy for a wrong unless it fits within the law.”

Block said the Missouri Adult Abuse Act this legislation falls under was initially created to protect women and other adults who were being abused by a domestic partner. That law is now 40 years old this year.

“Nobody ever dreamed that the legislation would be so expanded,” Block said.

The cases are R.J.D. v. Gauert, WD83817, L.M.D v. Gauert, WD83816, and G.E.G. v. Gauert, WD83815.