Harassment Prevention Orders

Several years ago, the only type of restraining order that existed in Massachusetts was an abuse prevention order, and it was available only between people who had been in a significant dating relationship or who had lived together. Unfortunately, abuse prevention orders did not apply to a large class of individuals who needed protection from abuse that was caused by other people in their lives (such as neighbors, bosses, former friends, or relatives that lived in other houses). The Legislature enacted a statute, found in chapter 258E of the Massachusetts General Laws, that allows a judge to issue a harassment prevention order against a defendant, regardless of the relationship between the defendant and the plaintiff.

In order to issue a harassment prevention order, a judge must find that the defendant:

  1. committed three or more acts of malicious and willful conduct aimed at the plaintiff with the intent to cause abuse, fear, intimidation, or property damage, and which did, in fact, cause abuse, fear, intimidation, or property damage; or
  2. had sexual relations with the plaintiff by force, duress, or threat; or
  3. committed one of the following crimes against the plaintiff: stalking, criminal harassment, drugging for sexual intercourse, assault with intent to rape, statutory rape, indecent assault and battery, or rape.

The vast majority of plaintiffs file their applications under the first prong of the statute (alleging the defendant committed three or more malicious acts). Malicious acts are acts that are motivated by hostility, cruelty, or revenge. Judges have the authority to issue harassment prevention orders without the presence of the defendant in an emergency situation, but within 10 days a court hearing will be held and the defendant will be notified that he has the right to challenge the issuance of the order in court. Judges can order the defendant to obey various conditions in conjunction with a harassment prevention order, most notably ordering the defendant to have no contact with the plaintiff.

Attorney Spring has litigated dozens of harassment prevention order hearings, representing both plaintiffs and defendants. In these cases, it is crucial for Attorney Spring to meet with his clients and take a detailed account of the allegedly harassing behavior. Oftentimes, a plaintiff’s decision to go to court in an effort to obtain a harassment prevention order is, in and of itself, harassment aimed at the defendant. In court, the judge will preside over an evidentiary hearing, which means witnesses will testify and evidence will be submitted. Attorney Spring will have the opportunity to cross-examine the opposing party.

If issued, harassment prevention orders carry significant consequences for the defendant. First, the orders are listed on the defendant’s CORI, which means any potential employer might discover that the defendant had a harassment prevention order issued against him. Second, any violation of a harassment prevention order is a crime punishable by up to two and a half years in the House of Correction. A plaintiff who is able to obtain a harassment prevention order against a defendant has enormous power to expose the defendant to significant criminal liability.

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