Utah’s Domestic Violence Laws Broaden Definition of Cohabitant

A bill recently passed in Utah that broadens the definition of cohabitant when referring to domestic violence laws to allow sexual partners who don’t live together to be able to file restraining orders if needed.

Current or former cohabitants only

Photo by: Tom Britt

Nearly one year ago, a Sandy Utah mother and her six year old son were gunned down in the middle of the street by the mother’s ex-boyfriend. Memorez Rackley and her two sons were walking home from school when they were confronted by Jeremy Patterson, a man Rackley had sexual relations with but had never lived with. Rackley flagged down a passerby and attempted to get her children and herself safely in the vehicle. Patterson shot Rackley point blank and then opened fire on the car, killing six year old Jase. Prior to the death of mother and son, Patterson had grown increasingly irate after Rackley ended their relationship, threatening her life and her children’s lives multiple times and even texting a message to a friend, stating his intention on killing his former lover. Rackley had attempted to obtain a restraining order on Patterson who continued to stalk and harass but because the two had never lived together, the case didn’t fall under Utah’s domestic violence laws.

Domestic Violence in Utah

Until recently, Utah laws regarding domestic violence as stated in section 78B-7-102 defined a cohabitant as “a person who is 16 years of age or older who:

(a) Is or was a spouse of the other party;
(b) Is or was living as if a spouse of the other party;
(c) Is related by blood or marriage to the other party;
(d) Has or had one or more children in common with the other party;
(e) Is the biological parent of the other party’s unborn child; or
(f) Resides or has resided in the same resident as the other party.”

Those fearing for their safety from sexual partners whom they had never lived with were left unprotected by this definition. Toxic or dangerous relationships know no boundaries, including the walls of a home. If a relationship or past relationship causes a person to fear for their safety, they should be able to protect themselves and their loved ones from those who pose a risk to their well-being.

Domestic “cohabitant” redefined

Following the death of Rackley and son, Utah lawmakers finally saw the need to adjust the definition of cohabitant. SB027 which was put into effect May 8th added another definition to the definitions of cohabitant. It now states a cohabitant also includes a person who:

(g) “is or was in a consensual sexual relationship with the other party.”

While a seemingly small adjustment, this expanded definition of cohabitant may save another individual from a similar fate as Rackley and her son. This bill also:

• “modifie[d] definition of ‘crime victim’ as it related to dating violence;
• Addresse[d] violation of specified protective orders;. . .
• Amends provisions for forms of petitions and protective orders;
• Addresse[d] duties of law enforcement officers;
• Addresse[d] when and how a court may act ex parte;”
• And other technical changes as well.

Help for domestic violence victims

Although the state of Utah’s laws protecting domestic violence victims were lacking, lawmakers made adjustments as soon as they saw the need. Sometimes these changes are made too late. Victims of domestic violence are encouraged to do everything in their power to stay safe, and for others around them to watch for signs of domestic violence and to help however possible to ensure the safety of their family and friends. For more information on the signs of domestic violence or tips and planning to stay safe, contact Utah Domestic Violence Coalition at 801-521-5544.

Lying to Police Results in Felony Obstruction of Justice Charges

A Utah woman arrested for felony obstruction of justice for initially lying to police about teens’ deaths in Utah.

Lying to police

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34 year old Morgan Reannon Henderson of Mammoth, Utah was arrested on felony charges of obstruction of justice after she finally released information regarding two Utah teens who had been missing for nearly three months. Henderson was questioned twice early on in the investigation of the teen’s disappearance but was dishonest in her response to investigators. It wasn’t until Henderson was arrested for drugs and weapon charges that she told the truth about the night the teens went missing. The whereabouts of 17 year old “Breezy” Otteson and 18 year old Riley Powell remained unknown to the teens’ families or authorities until Henderson eventually told police her live in boyfriend, Jerrod William Baum was responsible for the death of both teens. She then led them to the location of the bodies and Baum was arrested for aggravated murder.

Obstruction of Justice

Henderson admitted to police that the teens had been at her when Baum became upset at the visitors and tied them up. She saw Baum kill the teens before dumping their bodies in an abandoned mine. She then assisted Baum in hiding their vehicle while he also stashed their personal belongings. Utah Code 76-8-306 states: “An actor commits obstruction of justice if the actor, with intent to hinder, delay, or prevent the investigation, apprehension, prosecution, conviction, or punishment of any person regarding conduct that constitutes a criminal offense:

(a)provides any person with a weapon;
(b) prevents by force, intimidation, or deception, any person from performing any act that might aid in the discovery, apprehension, prosecution, conviction, or punishment of any person;
(c) alters, destroys, conceals, or removes any item or other thing;
(d) makes, presents, or uses any item or thing known by the actor to be false;
(e) harbors or conceals a person;
(f) provides a person with transportation, disguise, or other means of avoiding discovery or apprehension;
(g) warns any person of impending discovery or apprehension;
(h) warns any person of an order authorizing the interception of wire communications or of a pending application for an order authorizing the interception of wire communications;
(i) conceals information that is not privileged and that concerns the offense, after a judge or magistrate has ordered the actor to provide the information; or
(j) provides false information regarding a suspect, a witness, the conduct constituting an offense, or any other material aspect of the investigation.”

Since Henderson helped dispose of evidence and withheld information that would have led to the arrest of her boyfriend and recovery of the two teens, she was charged with two counts of obstruction of justice. Section 76-8-306 goes on to note that “Obstruction of justice is a second degree felony if the conduct which constitutes an offense would be a capital felony or first degree felony [such as murder]”. Each second degree felony is punishable by one to 15 years in prison.

A fearful choice?

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Although Henderson should have been upfront with authorities during her initial questioning, there is a possibility she chose to lie out of fear for her own safety. Baum had allegedly killed the teens to punish Henderson for allowing another male in the house while Baum was gone. If Baum was capable of such a heinous act, it would be reasonable to assume Henderson may be terrified to speak out against him. The fact that he threatened her life would have cemented that fear of telling the truth. It wasn’t until she was safe behind bars for another crime that she might have felt safe enough to share the truth. For that reason, lying to police or otherwise obstructing justice would have seemed the only choice to guarantee she was protected from harm. For those who are facing charges stemming from fear of domestic violence, contact a reputable criminal defense attorney. Those living in a situation where they are fearful for their safety or the safety of their family members are encouraged to call The National Domestic Violence at 1-800-799-7233.

Increased Charges for Repeated Violation of a Protective Order

A Spanish Fork, Utah man was arrested multiple times on a single day for repeated violations of a protective order.

Violation of a protective order

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35 year old Dustin Larsen of Spanish Fork was arrested for contacting a woman who had filed a protective order against him. Not only did Larsen disobey the command for no contact listed in the protective order, he violated that order more than 150 times. Police arrested Larsen, who later bailed out and continued to go against the court issued no-contact orders. He was arrested again that day on increased penalties.

Repeated violations

The woman on the other end of the protective order reported to police that Larsen had contacted her by phone, text, and even through social media. Each time Larsen tried to contact the woman was a violation of the protective order against him. Since he violated that order multiple times, he could face multiple counts of the same charge. According to Utah code 76-5-108, “Any person who is the respondent or defendant subject to a protective order . . . under [the Cohabitant Abuse Act, Juvenile Court Act or Domestic Violence Protection Orders Act]. . . who intentionally or knowingly violates that order after having been properly served, is guilty of a class A misdemeanor “.

Increased penalties

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That section of Utah Code goes on the note that violation of one of the described orders “is a domestic violence offense . . . and subject to increased penalties in accordance with Section 77-36-1.1.” The aforementioned section explains that since Larsen was arrested for violation of a [domestic or cohabitant] protective order punishable as a class A misdemeanor, any subsequent arrest made within five years of that would have an increased charge of a third degree felony. Larsen went on to violate the protective order again the same day of his arrest and ended up being charged with the increased charges on his second trip of the day to the county jail.

Understanding court orders

Anyone who receives a court-issued protective order should read it carefully, perhaps with the help of an attorney to ensure they understand the document completely as well as what penalties they could face for violating that order. It is recommended that individuals facing criminal charges for violation of a protective order and other charges related to domestic violence seek counsel from an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately.