We were left troubled by the revelation this week that a Loudoun County Circuit Court judge ordered a woman jailed for contempt while she was in the midst of testifying about alleged abuse she suffered in a domestic violence case.
When asked by Judge James Fisher whether she had used narcotics before coming to court, Katie Orndoff volunteered that she had smoked marijuana earlier in the day. Ms. Orndoff, however, was not asked any follow-up questions, such as when exactly she had smoked — a critical point if attempting to ascertain whether any particular behavior she was exhibiting could be attributed to marijuana use.
Ms. Orndoff’s attorney told the Times-Mirror that it was at around 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. that morning — about three or four hours before she was due in court — when she used the drug, which has been legal for adult recreational use in Virginia since July and medical use since last year. Most literature on the subject suggest the effects of smoked marijuana last 2–3 hours.
Given that she was testifying for an hour and a half at the point when Fisher interrupted the proceedings to posit his questions to Ms. Orndoff, it seems implausible that she would still be experiencing any significant effects of the drug if that much time had passed.
The argument is of course buttressed by statements made by Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Elena Ventura, who wrote in a brief that Orndoff was anxious, visibly nervous about being in court, and articulated concerns about the defendant. It should come as no surprise then that Ms. Orndoff would exhibit symptoms of anxiety. After all, she also told the judge that she had been experiencing anxiety and nervousness after discontinuing various anti-anxiety and anti-depression medications that she had been prescribed for 10 years.
We believe there existed more than enough reason to grant Ms. Orndoff some level of benefit of the doubt, rather than having an already nervous witness taken into the custody of deputies and then compulsed into an invasive blood test at a hospital and then put in jail.
We’ll let the lawyers and legal scholars debate whether the episode constitutes an unlawful search and seizure.
There is, however, an aspect of this case that goes beyond that of Ms. Orndoff’s no-doubt traumatic experience — one that could see unintended reverberations for some time. That’s the effect on victims of domestic violence.
Instances of intimate partner violence are notoriously under reported, and anything that might have a chilling effect on victims seeking help should be avoided.
Over half of female homicide victims in the U.S. are killed by a current or former male intimate partner, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC also reports that survivors of intimate partner violence can experience mental health problems such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. They are at higher risk for engaging in behaviors such as smoking, binge drinking, and sexual risk behaviors.
We note those statistics because we were struck by something Ms. Orndoff said in remarks distributed by her attorney. “I will never feel safe reporting abuse again because doing so does not protect me,” she said.
That was heartbreaking to read, and even more devastating to imagine that there are victims who may come to the same conclusion.