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Friday, April 3, 2015

Defending the indefensible, but hey, it’s a living

EDITOR’S NOTE: in Steve’s article in Rhode Island’s Future, he has lots of video of this amazing testimony imbedded.

FrankWhen Frank Saccoccio, president of the Rhode Island Second Amendment Coalition and Johnston’s assistant city solicitor, introduced himself to the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify against Senate Bill 503, which would prohibit “any individual convicted of domestic violence or subject to a restraining order from possessing a firearm,” he played up the fact that he does the criminal prosecutions for  Johnston in district court.

He said that he’s “very familiar with the domestic violence issues and what actually comes in front of District Court…” and implied that this was because of his prosecutorial experience. 

“I’ll try to give you my perspective,” said Saccoccio, “that I see each and every week in the court system…”

Watching a lawyer walk the line between a job that requires him to prosecute perpetrators of domestic violence and a job that requires him to protect the Second Amendment rights of gun owners should have been an interesting experience. No one supports the idea of domestic abusers having access to guns, so the intent of this law was generally thought to be a good thing by everyone. 

Further, prosecutors generally like laws that make prosecuting wrongdoers easier while at the same time protecting victims from further harm. Yet early on Saccoccio made comments that made it appear he had as much sympathy for those accused of domestic violence as he did for those who claimed to be victims, saying, for instance, “A lot of times you take a look at Family Court judges, they are very, very liberal. They like to err on the side of caution.”

This doesn’t seem like something someone interested in prosecuting domestic abusers might say. What lawyer complains when the judge is on their side?

The jump from talking about district court to family court was also puzzling. Didn’t Saccoccio indicate that his perspective was gleaned from his experience in district court? 

Now, I’m not a lawyer by any means. I know that lawyers work in a variety of courts and court settings, and that Saccoccio is sure to have a lot of knowledge about the workings of various courts, but is his concern on this issue truly informed by his experience as the assistant town solicitor of Johnston?

I don’t think so.

It seems to me that Saccocio’s perspective on this issue is informed by his work as a lawyer who helps defend, not prosecute, those accused of domestic violence. On the website for his law firm, Comerford & Saccoccio, there is a section about the “increased penalties for crimes committed on family members, spouses or those who share the same household.” 

The website goes on to say that, “If you have been accused of domestic violence, you can be arrested on the spot. At Comerford & Saccoccio, we will work hard to get you out of jail and immediately begin building your defense.”

In light of this, Saccoccio’s perspective begins to make sense, and it’s no wonder that he would not want to broadcast the basis of his perspective to the Senate committee. Not only is Saccoccio, as the president of the Rhode Island Second Amendment Coalition inclined to fight legislation that might limit access to firearms, he’s also a lawyer that “will work hard” to get clients accused of domestic violence “out of jail immediately.” 

Testifying against this bill did not require Saccoccio to navigate a difficult line, it simply required him to do what he always does: advocate for gun owners and domestic abusers.

Saccoccio told two stories during his 20 minutes of testimony in which he attempted to highlight how easy it was for innocent men to get caught up in the court system because of domestic violence accusations and the violations of restraining and protective orders.

"Everybody here who practices law that knows it is extremely easy to be found in violation of a protective order or restraining order. We have one right now in Johnston, I’ll explain to you the quick facts without saying the name.

“Male and female, the female filed for divorce. She got a protective order in the divorce, probably to get a leg up on it, I’m not sure, then she goes in, as she goes in to drop off the kids,  at the house, he comes out and says, ‘We got to do taxes at the end of the month, I really need the finances.’ 

"Takes the kids and goes into the house. She goes around the corner, calls the police. he gets arrested, he’s charged, and that’s going to trial right now.

“So under this section, that you’ve put in place, that person, if they’re convicted, even if they’re put on probation, would lose their firearms, forever, because they spoke to the other person. 

"No threats, no intimidation, no name calling… asked if he could get the finances so that he could do the taxes at the end of the month. That’s a violation of a protective order and a restraining order. And it’s just that simple.”

We have a seminal case in Rhode Island, State v. Conti and the attorneys that are here understand this. They’re aware of the basis of this. Mr. Conti was walking out of the post office, held the door open for Mrs. Conti, and there was a protective order. 

"As she walked by he said, ‘Hi Liz.’ And she walked in. A day later, she’s driving down the street, he’s going the other way, he waves. She called the police and had him arrested. He was charged, had to go through a trial, and he lost. 

"They said he violated the protective order. That case went to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, and it was overturned. But something as simple as that, ‘How are you doing?’ and you could be right in the middle of this [law], losing your firearms, and you could be convicted of that.”

Certainly everyone accused of a crime deserves a robust defense. And Saccoccio, as a defense attorney, provides an invaluable service representing those accused of domestic violence who, we should all remember, are innocent until proven guilty. That said, our society and our government has an obligation to protect victims of domestic violence, and not having access to your guns while the case is decided is a small price to pay for justice and safety.

This is the line Saccocio was pretending to walk.

The intent of Senate Bill 503 is to save lives. Since Saccoccio likes stories, here’s one he should know: 

The story of Evelyn Burgos, who lived in Johnston until August 2013. According to the Providence Journal, two weeks after she applied for a restraining order against her ex-boyfriend, she was killed violently – much like she feared. And what actually took place was far worse. 

Armed with a .357 caliber revolver, her ex-boyfriend shot and killed Burgos and her 25-year-old daughter Vanessa Perez in the presence of her two sons, 2 and 8, and her 3-year-old granddaughter.”

I wrote about the importance of closing the loophole Senate Bill 503 addresses back in January.

In February, Steve Ahlquist made $213.12 writing for RI Future. Consider supporting his efforts by sending a donation through PayPal to the email below:
Twitter: @SteveAhlquist

Steve Ahlquist is a writer, artist and current president of the Humanists of Rhode Island, a non-profit group dedicated to reason, compassion, optimism, courage and action. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of any organization of which he is a member.

His photos and video are usable under the Creative Commons license. Free to share with credit.

"We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” - Elie Weisel

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor." - Desmond Tutu