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Do We Want to Define Everyone as a ‘Victim’ of Domestic Violence? Supreme Court Says ‘No’

WASHINGTON / June 7, 2021 – A recent Supreme Court decision, Van Buren v. United States, sends a message to lawmakers to resolve the problem of widening definitions of domestic violence. Such broad definitions, sometimes referred to as “coercive control,” turn essentially every American into a “victim” of domestic violence, and make it virtually impossible for the accused to defend against a false allegation.

Arising from the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, the Van Buren v. United States case involved a police officer who was charged with a felony under the CFAA for obtaining a license plate number from a law enforcement database for a purpose other than those authorized (1). The High Court ruled, “If the ‘exceeds authorized access’ clause criminalizes every violation of a computer-use policy, then millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens are criminals.”

Similar concerns arise from recent efforts to expand the definition of “domestic violence” to include non-violent actions. In March, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 1620, a bill that redefined “domestic violence” to include “verbal, psychological, economic, or technological abuse.” (2)

Commentator Wendy McElroy warned, “This vague and expansive definition would include lover’s quarrels (verbal abuse), threats of leaving the relationship (psychological), imposing a budget (economic), and sending emails repeatedly after a break-up (technological).” (3) Writer James Baresel likewise noted these new definitions “are so loose as to allow not just ordinary human failings to be included within their scope, but even some reasonable behaviors.” (4)

In addition, the Department of Defense has created a new category of misconduct referred to as “domestic abuse,” which is defined expansively as a “pattern of behavior resulting in emotional/psychological abuse, economic control, and/or interference with personal liberty.” (5)

Redefining “domestic violence” to include non-violent actions has three drawbacks:

  1. False Allegations: Claims of verbal, psychological, or economic abuse are so vague that accused persons have no viable defense against a false allegation. This would exacerbate partner conflict and worsen family instability. Eight percent of Americans now report being falsely accused of abuse (6).
  2. Increase in Demands for Services: Turning every American into a victim would open the door to expanded requests for financial assistance from victim service agencies. Persons claiming to be victims of coercive control could quit their jobs without good evidence, costing states billions in unemployment benefits (7).
  3. Reduced Police Protections for Victims of Violence: Expansive definitions would cause the number of calls for police assistance to spike. This in turn would dissipate the availability of criminal justice services for the victims of actual violence.

Overly broad definitions of domestic violence are a problem in state-level laws, as well (8).  In United States v. Castleman, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that “when everything is domestic violence, nothing is.” (9)


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