South Carolina

York County conviction shows domestic violence law applies to same-sex marriages

Attorney talks about York County groundbreaking same-sex marriage court ruling

A judge in York County has issued a landmark court ruling for South Carolina and other states with common law marriage that said a same-sex couple had a common law marriage. The ruling states the marriage is retroactive for the last three decades
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A judge in York County has issued a landmark court ruling for South Carolina and other states with common law marriage that said a same-sex couple had a common law marriage. The ruling states the marriage is retroactive for the last three decades

A Fort Mill man was convicted earlier this month in a York County court of domestic violence against his husband. It’s South Carolina’s second groundbreaking ruling this month related to gay marriage.

Until a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2015 legalized gay marriage, the charge of domestic violence in same-sex relationships could not have gone to court. South Carolina law did not recognize domestic violence in same-sex relationships until gay marriage became legal.

Thousands of gay victims and gay defendants could be impacted by the March conviction, legal experts said. Colin Miller, criminal law and evidence expert at the University of South Carolina law school, said under state domestic violence law, the following are legal definitions of a household member for purposes of prosecuting domestic violence: spouse, former spouse, persons who have a child in common, or a male and female who live together or have lived together.

Domestic violence represents a danger in any relationship. That danger is the same for same-sex partners. A jealous spouse is a jealous spouse. A spouse with a bruised ego is a spouse with a bruised ego. The sex of the person makes no difference.

Susan Dunn, South Carolina legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union

The ruling means more victims’ rights, and potentially tougher criminal penalties, against gay abusers. South Carolina residents convicted of domestic violence are barred for years from owning guns or ammunition, and face stiffer penalties for subsequent offenses, prosecutors and victims advocates said.

“Domestic violence represents a danger in any relationship,” said Susan Dunn, South Carolina legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “That danger is the same for same-sex partners. A jealous spouse is a jealous spouse. A spouse with a bruised ego is a spouse with a bruised ego. The sex of the person makes no difference.”

The trial was based on a 2016 incident. The victim told police his husband hit him during an argument, then drove into the victim’s car near their home. A witness saw the crash, indictments and arrest warrants show. The suspect fled but was arrested two weeks later, said Leslie Robinson, the 16th Circuit Assistant Solicitor who prosecuted the case earlier this month. Because the two men were married, police were able to apply domestic violence laws.

Before same-sex marriage was legal, the allegation would have been assault, Robinson said.

“We introduced as evidence the marriage license that showed the men were legally married,” Robinson said. “This was the first arrest in York County after the law changed, and the first trial.”

A grand jury indicted the defendant on a charge of first degree domestic violence, the potential for great injury or death. That charge carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. Prosecutors argued to the jury it was a case of second degree domestic violence, which carries up to three years in prison. The judge included assault and battery -- a lesser offense -- as a potential verdict.

The jury found the defendant guilty of third degree domestic violence, the lowest level of domestic violence. The defendant was sentenced to six months probation and ordered to undergo batterer counseling.

Charles Rudnick, York County assistant public defender representing the defendant, said the law must be applied fairly regardless of sexual orientation.

“This may be the first trial of its kind in York County, but it is a reflection of the law as it is,” Rudnick said. “And the jury, in rendering a verdict of the lesser degree of domestic violence, accepted and applied the law. The charge of domestic violence applies to same-sex married couples, and we defend our clients against criminal charges regardless of sexual orientation.”

In a previous Family Court ruling in March, a judge ruled same-sex couples married under state law have rights to alimony and property during divorce. Legal experts say the two rulings show courts are having to correct past discrimination against gay people.

“It is no different than the courts dealing with racial discrimination laws that were not constitutional,” said Miller Shealy, a Charleston School of Law criminal law expert. “All these laws mean same-sex couples have the same rights as heterosexual couples. This is new. It has never been interpreted before.”

What remains unclear is the ruling’s impact on common law marriage -- a marriage without a license. South Carolina is one of eight states that recognize common law marriage. But the state law defining household members for domestic violence does not recognize same-sex couples in a common law marriage, prosecutors and legal experts say.

Experts said what the two court cases in the past two weeks in York County show isthe legal protections that were not available to gay people and gay couples up until same-sex marriage was made legal are now going to be recognized by the courts of South Carolina and the country.

Robinson, the York County prosecutor who gained the first conviction in a same-sex marriage domestic violence case, told the jury earlier this month the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal and domestic violence is against the law. Her argument was simple: Domestic violence is a crime, and “a spouse is a spouse.”

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