The state’s highest court ruled Wednesday that a father from Massachusetts could not use a restraining order meant to protect people from domestic violence to prevent an adult from meeting his 16-year-old daughter with the intent to engage in consensual sex.
The Supreme Judicial Court pointed out that 16 is the legal age for a teenager to engage in consensual sex and that the father showed no evidence that the adult, a 24-year-old visiting from England, had threatened or planned to abuse her in anyway.
In its unanimous ruling, however, the court also took the extraordinary step of defining a relationship made up of online communications such as text and e-mail messages and Skype conversations as a legitimate romantic relationship that would be covered under the state’s domestic violence prevention laws, if any threat does occur.
The court said that the adult, 24 at the time, and the teenager had engaged in real-time communications that were “intimate, reflected a mutual romantic relationship, and expressed a mutual desire to engage in sexual relations.”
“If the defendant had threatened to harm the daughter, [domestic violence laws] should be available to protect her,” the court ruled, saying that the process for obtaining a restraining order “must be interpreted to protect all who are in a substantive dating relationship from abuse, regardless of whether the relationship was developed or conducted by the use of technology.”
Legal observers, including lawyers involved in the case, said the court appeared to have considered the case in the first place not only to review the restraining order, but to expand the traditional definition of a substantive dating relationship to include online communications.
“I think what it is is the court’s efforts to keep up with evolving technology and social norms,” said Mark D. Engel, the lawyer who represented the adult in the case, Gregory James Compton. “I think the court is recognizing evolving technologies and realizing they’ve become increasingly important in day-to-day life.”
Robert F. Peck, who represented the father of the 16-year-old girl, said, “They have expanded, or clarified perhaps, to bring in line with today’s technology what actually constitutes a substantive dating relationship.”
In essence, the court’s ruling allows for lower courts to issue restraining orders in cases in which a threat of abuse is made in a relationship, even if the relationship is strictly through online communications. Anyone who violated such a restraining order would then be subject to criminal prosecution.
Peck said he was disappointed that the court found that the father’s restraining order was illegitimate, saying he had made the argument that the adult, Compton, in the online communications had indicated he would provide the 16-year-old with alcohol. The court found that the gesture, while a crime if carried out, was not a threat of abuse that would warrant the restraining order.
But “if he was in fact threatening her, threatening to come here and cause her harm, that would have been a different story,” said Mark T. Smith, an attorney from Boston who specializes in family law. He was speaking independently and was not involved in the case, but said the courts have been increasingly redefining statutes to account for technology, and said the high court has apparently set the standard for a dating relationship.
“I think, based upon the definition we now have of a substantive dating relationship,” he said, “it is going to be easier for people who have in fact been abused to prove they were in a relationship. . . . It’s going to be a greater protection for people who prove that.”
According to court records, the girl was 16 at the time she met Compton in July 2011, while traveling in Europe with her mother and grandmother. At first, she told him she was 18, and Compton brought her on a tour of the area surrounding London. But even after she admitted her true age, they continued communications through text messaging, e-mails, and through Skype and Facebook.
At one point in fall 2011, Compton made arrangements to travel to the area and planned “a day spent in each others’ arms.” He acknowledged her parents’ disapproval of the relationship and said they would have to “sneak about.”
The girl’s father, however, obtained a restraining order, which was served on Compton when he was found in the town in which he had planned to reserve his hotel room. At a hearing in Salem District Court, Compton said he “would never do anything that could possibly hurt [the girl].”
Engel said that Compton returned to England after the hearings and has not returned or tried to contact the family. He also said Compton never had sexual intercourse with the teenager.
But he sought the appeal of the restraining order, Engel said, because “I think he felt clearly that this was wrong.”
“I think he made the determination that it was worth standing up for what he felt was a clear injustice,” Engel said.