The director of a domestic violence center said the practice could jeopardize people's lives.
CLEVELAND (AP) -- Some attorneys are attempting to use Ohio's new gay marriage amendment to defend unmarried clients against domestic violence charges.
The constitutional amendment, which took effect on Dec. 1, denies legal status to unmarried couples.
In at least two cases last week, the Cuyahoga County public defender's office has asked a judge to dismiss domestic-violence charges against unmarried defendants, arguing that the charges violate the amendment by affording marriage-like legal status to unmarried victims who live with the people accused of attacking them.
Advocates for victims of domestic violence have worried about the effect of the amendment since it passed in November, and they fear defense attorneys around the state will copy the tactic used in Cuyahoga County.
"It's a bad, bad thing," said Cathleen Alexander, director of the Domestic Violence Center in Cleveland. "We're very worried that some victims will not be granted the protection they need because they're not married. That could jeopardize people's lives."
The Ohio Domestic Violence Network said more than 20,500 people were arrested for domestic violence in 2003, and courts issued 16,219 protective orders. The Columbus-based group's executive director, Nancy Nealon, estimates that as many as one in five such cases involve unmarried partners.
The state law on domestic violence applies to a "person living as a spouse."
Therefore, motions by the public defender's office argue that domestic violence charges against their clients violate the new amendment, which forbids any state or local law that would "create or recognize a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design ... of marriage."
"The thing is, you can only get a domestic-violence charge now if you are a wife beater, not a girlfriend beater," said Jeff Lazarus, a law clerk for public defender Robert Tobik who helped draft the motions to dismiss.
Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason called the motions "ridiculous."
Assistant Prosecutor Lisa Reitz Williamson said the domestic-violence law describes the type of relationships to which it applies without creating any special legal status for unmarried couples.
She argues that Ohio law stiffens penalties for criminals whose victims are children and senior citizens but doesn't bestow special rights on the victims.
Some domestic-violence victims advocates think the conflict could serve to undermine the domestic partner amendment, rather than weaken the state's domestic-violence law.
Some legal scholars argue that if a judge were to agree with the public defender's ruling, a court could declare the amendment in violation of the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law.
"Hopefully, instead of the domestic-violence statute, it will blow out the constitutional amendment," said Alexandria Ruden, a Legal Aid Society domestic-violence lawyer who has written about Ohio's domestic-violence law.