Washington Appeals Court Affirms DVPO Based on Coercive Control

“Coercive control” was added to Washington’s definition of “domestic violence” in 2022.  Although the statute provides a number of examples of coercive control, there have been few appellate cases interpreting it.  In an unpublished opinion, a Washington appeals court recently reviewed a domestic violence protection order, granted partly upon a finding that the husband had engaged in acts of coercive control.

In her petition for a domestic violence protection order, the wife indicated the husband had or owned firearms and that his use of firearms or other dangerous weapons “would be a serious and immediate threat. . .”  The petition also stated he “threatened to ‘kill himself’ while holding a gun.” She also stated he would say he was a burden and should end his life about once a month.   The petition stated the husband had “23 failed suicide attempts from his childhood.” The wife alleged he had more than 15 firearms in the house, with at least three in the bedroom and that ammunition was nearby.  She stated she wanted a divorce but did not feel it would be safe to tell the husband while he had guns.

The husband denied the allegations.  He averred he had never threatened the wife.  He also averred he had never attempted to kill himself, pointed a firearm at his head and threatened to kill himself, or said he “should end [his] life.”

The parties appeared through counsel and there was no live testimony at the hearing.  The court considered both parties’ sworn statements.  The wife’s counsel argued the husband had committed domestic violence through coercive control.

The trial court found the wife more credible and concluded she had proven the requirements for a domestic violence protection order by a preponderance of the evidence.  The court stated that the petition listed several incidents that would constitute domestic violence and coercive control.  The court noted the petition alleged the husband had made threats of suicide and statements about being a burden and that such comments “used for control and to manipulate behavior.”  The wife indicated she only wanted the firearms removed so she could obtain a divorce, and that she did not want the husband to be prohibited from having firearms permanently.

The court entered a domestic violence protection order valid for one year.  It found the wife had proved the requirements for the domestic violence protection order by the preponderance of the evidence and that the husband represented a credible threat to her safety.

The husband appealed, arguing the trial court abused its discretion in granting the order without live testimony to determine the parties’ credibility.  He pointed out the court had mentioned that it did not have the ability to judge credibility like it would at trial.  He argued the court erroneously believed it could not order an evidentiary hearing to determine credibility, which was an abuse of discretion.

The appeals court pointed out, however, that the superior court did not rule it did not have that authority.  Furthermore, the husband did not request live testimony.  The husband had not preserved the issue for appeal, so the appeals court refused to review it.  The appeals court did note, however, that the superior court did not have to grant the husband’s request for an evidentiary hearing if he had made one.  The court has the discretion to allow live testimony and discovery, but a domestic violence protection order hearing is equitable and the court may decide it based only on documentary evidence.

The husband also argued there was not substantial evidence supporting the requirements for a domestic violence protection order.

The appeals court first considered the statutory definition of “domestic violence,” which includes “coercive control.” The definition of “coercive control” is a “pattern of behavior that is used to cause another to suffer physical, emotional, or psychological harm, and in purpose or effect unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty.”  A court is required to consider the behavior’s context and effect from the perspective of someone similarly situation to determine if there has been unreasonable interference. The legislature included examples such as expressing an intent to attempt suicide and using or threatening to use a firearm in a way that either shows an intent to intimidate or warrants alarm for the other party’s safety or the safety of others. RCW 7.105.010.

The appeals court concluded the wife’s declaration provided a “classic example of coercive control.” It therefore concluded there was substantial evidence supporting the trial court’s finding of coercive control.

The appeals court affirmed the domestic violence protection order.

Whether you are seeking or opposing a domestic violence protection order, an experienced Washington civil protection order attorney can advise you regarding the proceedings and the evidence you need to support your side.  Set up a meeting with Blair & Kim, PLLC, by calling (206) 622-6562.


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