Fiona Ma for State Assembly
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Time to create a database on domestic violence

Last year, San Francisco Assemblywoman Fiona Ma sponsored a bill that sounded like a great idea. It would create an online searchable database that would identify people convicted of domestic violence.

Ma got the idea from Alexis Moore, a victim of domestic violence and stalking from a town near Sacramento, who was in a relationship with a man whose outward appearance fooled her. When they met, Moore says, he was good looking, drove a nice car and had an impressive college degree.

"Unfortunately, he didn't have on an orange prison jump suit to tell me he was dangerous," Moore said.

Eight years later, after he nearly beat her to death, Moore fled for help and founded the organization Survivors in Action. Like hundreds of others across the country, she had no idea she'd hooked up with a partner who had a criminal history of abuse and violence.

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness month, and it is a time to reflect on how many people have an experience like Moore's. In 2007, 119 homicides were committed in California as a result of "intimate partner violence," and in 2006, a staggering 43,911 people were arrested for domestic violence, according to the Department of Justice.

It seems impossible that there isn't a way to alert people that their partner has a history of abuse, violence or stalking. After all, there is a national registry for child sexual predators.

There should be something similar for domestic violence. Women (who make up two-thirds of victims nationally) could check up on that new guy. Parents could research the sketchy boyfriend their daughter has been seeing.

Ma's initiative, Assembly Bill 1771, provided that Californians who were convicted of felony domestic abuse or multiple counts of misdemeanor domestic abuse would be entered into an online database. That sounds sensible.

After all, California Penal Code Section 11105 (b) includes a long list of officials, entities and individuals who have access to criminal records. But it does not include ordinary citizens.

"The idea was to make it accessible to everyone, not just those with money or influence," Ma said.

The bill encountered a firestorm of opposition - much of it from organizations devoted to curbing domestic violence. Among those who raised doubts about the bill were the California District Attorneys Association and the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Robert Coombs, director of public affairs for the Coalition Against Sexual Assault, says a database gives "a false sense of security," because some abusers may not have been convicted specifically for domestic violence, but are still a threat. Others worried that identifying the perpetrator of domestic violence makes the name of the victim clear, violating that person's privacy.

"It comes down to how much privacy do you lose because you have a conviction," said Scott Thorpe, CEO of the District Attorneys Association. "It is the question of how much you need to know, and how much you have a right to know."

The groups cite an Arizona law that created a database listing those convicted of elder abuse. But reporting actually decreased because families felt it identified them, not just the perpetrator.

Ma dropped the idea, but she said she's interested in letting the proposal "germinate" to see if there is more support.

But there's never been a better time. Coombs even has a suggestion, offering that it might be more acceptable if we returned to the days when ordinary people could check criminal history, but only at a law enforcement office. That idea, which is still in use in some other states, would deter those who are just Internet surfing the list for fun, and would also give police officers a chance to discuss the findings.

That might not overcome the objections - Thorpe questions how much it would cost to staff an officer to handle those inquiries - but there must be a way to make this work. Privacy may be important, but so is the opportunity to keep an innocent victim from domestic abuse.

So when Coombs asks, "How many cases are enough to justify" the database, I have a simple answer.

One.