A resolution that was drafted by two Miami Law students and which condemns domestic violence was unanimously approved Tuesday by the Miami-Dade County Commission.
The two students, Michael Stevenson and Rashanda McCollum, members of the law school's Human Rights Clinic, were present as the commission voted to express its "intent to join world leaders and leaders within the United States in recognition of domestic violence as a human rights concern." The panel, using the students' language, declared that freedom from domestic violence is "a fundamental human right."
The resolution, introduced by Commissioner Sally A. Heyman, asserts that "state and local governments bear a moral responsibility to secure this human right on behalf of their residents." The document adds that it "shall serve as a charge to all local government agencies to incorporate these principles into their policies and practices."
Caroline Bettinger-López, an Associate Professor of Clinical Legal Education at Miami Law and Director of the Human Rights Clinic, said she was thrilled by the commission's vote. "Miami-Dade is the first county in the nation to pass a resolution declaring that freedom from domestic violence is a fundamental human right," she said. "We look forward to other municipalities and states following our county's lead."
At the hearing, Commissioner Heyman introduced the Human Rights Clinic team – Stevenson, JD '13; McCollum, who graduated in May; and Luis Ramos, JD '13.
The resolution notes that last year, 9,313 domestic violence offenses were reported to the police in Miami-Dade County – more than in any other county in Florida – but that only half of those offenses resulted in arrests. Additionally, Miami-Dade shelters provided overnight protection to victims fleeing domestic violence on 23,276 occasions.
Domestic violence disproportionately impacts women, and especially "women of color, women with low income, and immigrant women within Miami-Dade County," the resolution asserts.
Stevenson pointed to the death in April of a Florida International University law student, Danette Willory, as a tragic example of the pervasiveness of the problem. Willory, an intern at the Broward State Attorney's Office who hoped to become a prosecutor, died from close-range gunshot wounds in a car outside her apartment after a dispute with her boyfriend, who then committed suicide. Willory's mother insisted that the man had previously never shown signs of being violent.
The resolution notes a case in which Professor Bettinger-López and the Human Rights Clinic were very much involved. In 1999, a Colorado woman's three young children were killed after the police failed to enforce a restraining order against her husband. Instead of looking for the man and the three girls, the officers took a two-hour dinner break, wrote a ticket to someone who had violated a fire-lane regulation, and filled out a report about a lost dog. Like many victims, that woman had no recourse. The Supreme Court eventually ruled in the case – Town of Castle Rock v. Jessica Gonzales – that there was no violation of the U.S. Constitution in the police's failure to enforce the restraining order against her husband.
"To this day, that reality holds true for many victims in Miami-Dade County – even for those who have valid, court-ordered restraining orders against their abusers," Stevenson said. "It's time we turned that way of thinking into an unfortunate relic of our past."