Topeka decriminalizes domestic battery, other misdemeanors

Liz Goodwin
The Lookout

The Topeka City Council voted to decriminalize domestic battery and other misdemeanors Tuesday night. The vote was a bid to get the county district attorney to back down from his decision not to prosecute those crimes anymore.

Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor announced abruptly last month that due to budget cuts, he would stop prosecuting the city's misdemeanors effective immediately. The city has argued that it lacks the resources to take on those crimes itself--including a jail. Misdemeanor domestic battery crimes have gone un-prosecuted and unpunished since the financial tiff began, outraging domestic violence activists.

"The hope is that prosecution, especially as it is currently fully funded, will resume tomorrow," Topeka city council member Karen Hiller told The Lookout. The vote was 7-3 in favor of decriminalization. Domestic battery is still a state crime, so city council members hope Taylor will now be forced to resume prosecuting those cases.

"It lets the city simply say,  'We're not part of this conversation. We never were. We're out of this,' " Hiller said.

But it's far from clear that that the city council's tactical move will convince Taylor to resume misdemeanor prosecutions. In a statement, Taylor said the county doesn't have the funds to try such cases, but that he was working to find a solution.

Topeka City Manager Dan Stanley defended the decision to decriminalize domestic battery in a statement sent out to council members before the vote. "The Topeka Municipal Court is not a court of record. That means a conviction in which the penalty may be jail can be automatically appealed to District Court—forcing the victim to go through trial a second time. Any action to repeal [domestic battery] from City ordinances is done for the benefit of the victims and to place the responsibility and the seriousness of the crime in the venue where it belongs—the District Court. This is where the services for victims and families already exists, and the DA has a long history of handling these sensitive cases," he wrote.

But Claudine Dombrowski, a Topeka resident and advocate for domestic violence victims, tells The Lookout that the city-county bickering is leaving domestic battery victims helpless.

"It doesn't matter who has the money and who doesn't. Find a way," she said.