HONOLULU — A new state law that makes domestic violence a felony if it’s committed in the presence of children has been criticized as excessive and vague, a newspaper reported Tuesday.
The statute took effect June 20 and makes physical abuse in the presence of a child under 14, who is a family or household member, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
Abuse without a child present remains a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail.
The state public defender’s office provided testimony against the measure before it became law, questioning whether a minor fighting with a sibling younger than 14 could face the felony charge.
It isn’t clear if the law applies to a child in another part of the home who hears arguing but doesn’t see anything, defense attorney Myles Breiner told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. He said ramifications of a felony conviction could add more stress to a family.
“It unnecessarily criminalizes people who should not be criminalized,” he said. “Felony convictions put you in the least likely category to get any kind of public assistance for housing and vocational training.”
The law is also open to misuse, he said, citing the possible example of a person inserting a child into a situation to elevate the crime against the offender.
Proponents say research shows children who witness domestic violence can suffer severe emotional and mental difficulties.
At least 14 other states have similar laws, the Honolulu prosecutor’s office said in testimony supporting the measure.
The office did not say whether anyone has been charged under the new statute. The Honolulu Police Department did not have the number of people arrested on suspicion of felony abuse.
Department media reports show eight people were arrested under the felony offense in the past two weeks. However, the department doesn’t create a media report for every arrest.