Legal Implications of Rihanna’s Forgiveness

Leslie headshot outside_9797_10x13by Leslie O’Neal

With the broadcast of the 55th annual Grammy Awards on February 10, 2013, it seems that the relationship between Chris Brown and Rihanna has come full circle.  While the pair attended this award show arm in arm this year, it was the night before this very event in 2009 that Chris Brown was arrested on charges of domestic abuse against Rihanna.  Shortly thereafter, photographs of badly beaten Rihanna surfaced along with a detailed police report which confirmed rumors that Rihanna had been severely beaten, choked, even bitten by an enraged Brown.

The charges ultimately resulted in Brown being sentenced to 5 years of probation and 6 months of community service.  As part of his sentence, Brown was placed under a restraining order which prohibited him from coming in contact with Rihanna.

Regrettably, what developed thereafter is not uncommon in situations of domestic violence: reconciliation.  It began with Rihanna casually posting photographs of the two together, making public appearances, and even teaming up for a musical collaboration on Brown’s 5th studio album, Fortune.  Each outing further confirmed that she and Brown were on the brink of reconciliation.  This culminated just weeks ago, on February 6, 2013 when Rihanna accompanied Chris Brown to a Court appearance stemming from the very incident in which she was the victim.  If that weren’t a bold enough statement, she blew Brown a kiss in the Courtroom and left with him hand in hand.

Rihanna is now dismissive of the backlash over her decision and is recently quoted in Rolling Stone magazine as stating, “If it’s a mistake, it’s my mistake.”

Regardless of the public disdain over her decision to reconcile with her attacker, Rihanna’s actions would have significant legal implications if the initial incident had occurred in Georgia.  Often the first step for a victim to secure protection from an abuser is to seek a Protective Order from the Court on an emergency basis.  In order to do this, the alleged victim must file a Petition for Emergency Protective Order and present his/her allegations to a Court.  The alleged perpetrator would not be given notice of this hearing due to the emergency nature of the issue.  If the Court grants the Emergency Protective Order to the accuser, the opposing party is immediately served with a copy of the Order, prohibited from contacting the accuser, and a follow-up hearing is scheduled shortly thereafter so as to give the accused an opportunity to present his/her side of the story.

What happens between the preliminary hearing and the follow up hearing can have a substantial impact on whether the Protective Order is dismissed, or extended for a 12 month period.  Often the parties at issue are involved in a relationship not unlike Rihanna’s and Chris Browns relationship; complicated and emotional.   Victims are often in committed relationships with their attacker and in many instances, are financially dependent on them.   This situation can make reconciliation seem very tempting; particularly if it results in the victim avoiding court, avoiding attorney’s fees, and avoiding the cross-examination of the opposing attorney.

However, under Georgia law, in order to obtain an Emergency Protective Order, the victim must declare to the Court that he/she is in imminent fear of bodily harm.  If the accuser then voluntarily makes contact with the alleged abuser, whether it be as simple as a text message or as involved as an in person reconciliation, this act will be considered an admission by the accuser that he/she is not, in fact, in imminent fear of bodily harm.  Georgia Courts have little tolerance for this sort of back and forth behavior in the Protective Order context and will often dismiss the Protective Order in its entirety if even minimal contact has been initiated by the accuser.

So while Rihanna may dismiss her decision as “her mistake” to make, let’s hope she does not glamourize that decision for those watching.