‘Digital barrier’: NC bill would allow victims of abuse, harassment to appear in court via Zoom

North Carolina news

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (FOX 46 CHARLOTTE) — Lawmakers in Raleigh are breaking ground with a new bill to protect survivors of abuse and harassment.  

Legislators say this bill is the first of its kind and would give victims some much-needed protection from their abusers.  

On Wednesday, a lawmaker told FOX 46 that the bill would give abuse victims a digital barrier between them and the people they are most afraid of. Victims could appear to reinstate restraining orders via Zoom or Web-Ex rather than having to show up in person. 

“Every time I have to go to court, you know, you go into the courthouse, and you don’t know if you’re going to run into them at the metal detectors or outside the courtroom,” survivor Audra Toussaint said.  

Toussaint has had a restraining order against her abuser since 2014, but every two years, she has to go back to the courtroom and get the restraining order renewed. 

“There’s a lot that gets triggered as you’re approaching that time and if I could Zoom instead of being in the courtroom, at this point, I would do that. 100 percent,” Toussaint said.  

She supports legislation that would let victims appear via the web for court, even after the pandemic is over. 

“I think any way that we can make it easier for victims to renew is a good thing,” she said.   

Luckily, Toussaint lives in the same area as the county she filed her restraining order in. Others are not so lucky.  

Maddy Mulsteff has to fly back and forth every time she needs to get her restraining order renewed against her abuser. 

Mulsteff has her next court appearance with her stalker in just a few days, so she has to get to Union County to get her restraining order renewed. She says she is lucky that she can make the trip, financially and work schedule-wise, but she knows not everyone can. 

Along with the burden of travel, Mulsteff says the experience of seeing her abuser again can be traumatic. 

“I mean, it sucks sitting there and having to go on the stand and look at him and tell him I’m still afraid of him,” Mulsteff said. “And having him look at me, he’ll blow kisses to me or wink at me.”   

She says this is all too common. 

“A lot of the times, the person who is stalking or abusing, they like the fact that they get to see them in court. Especially in stalking situations. He doesn’t get to see me all the time, but in court, he does,” Mulsteff said. “So, you know, these stalking hearings are an opportunity for them to be around you and to make you uncomfortable.”  

Representative Jeffrey McNeely is sponsoring the bill that would give victims a digital reprieve.  

His bill would also make it a misdemeanor for anyone involved in the case to provide the victims address to their abuser. This comes after a woman fleeing her abuser moved to Charlotte from Iredell County, but couldn’t seem to escape him.  

“After the appearance, about five or six days later, he showed up on her doorstep,” McNeely said. “[He] was able to get her residence or current residence we think from his lawyer.”  

It’s important to note that, according to McNeely, the victim must appear in court in person the first time. 

When lawmakers originally tried to write the bill as a Zoom appearance from the first time on they got major pushback from judges and law enforcement who said the first appearance can show a different side of the story. 

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