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209A Text Message Restraining Order Case decided by Massachusetts Appeals Court

Massachusetts Appellate Court Decides Text Message Restraining Order Case

A typical restraining order prohibits contact between two people, typically in a domestic violence or stalking situation. But what qualifies as contact? Are text messages from a certain phone number considered “contact” even though there is no way to prove who is behind the phone? The Massachusetts Court of Appeals decided this question in the case of Commonwealth v. Gonsalves.

What happened in the Gonsalves case?

This case involves the typical situation of a restraining order being filed as the result of domestic violate.  After dating for around a year, the victim ended her relationship with the Defendant on December 30th 2016. The next week on January 4th 2017, the victim got a 209A restraining order which prohibited the defendant from having any contact wither her. This type of restraining order is used specifically for victims of domestic violence. The day after the restraining order was put into place, until January 11th, 2017, the Defendant sent the victim over one hundred text messages. The messages called the victim names and threatened her with physical violence.

The lower court found that the Defendant did not violate the restraining order because there was not sufficient evidence to show that he had knowledge of the order. The Defendant also argued that the trial judge erred by admitting the text messages into evidence.

To establish a violation of a 209A restraining order, the State must show that the defendant had knowledge of the order. Although in this case there is no evidence of service, the State can still prove that the defendant had knowledge through other means. Evidence that the Defendant received actual or constructive notice can be used to meet this standard. In this case, there was evidence that the Defendant had knowledge of the order from the text messages, as he makes references towards having a restraining order placed on him. His text messages showed awareness.

Further, the Defendant attempted to exclude screenshots of the text messages. The Defendant argued that the text messages were not sufficiently authenticated because there was no proof that he was behind the text messages. Anyone could have gotten his phone and sent text messages from the number so how could a court truly prove that he was the one initiating contact?

It is the general rule that trial judges are the gatekeeper of evidence. Whether evidence comes into the courtroom or not is up to both the rules of evidence, and the judge’s decision. Appellate courts are to look for errors in the judge’s conduct or a rule that was not correctly followed, not a judgment call that could go either way. An appellate court’s job is not to question a reasonable decision made by a trial court judge regarding evidence.

In the case, the appellate court found that the lower court judge did not abuse his discretion by concluding that the text messages were sufficiently authenticated. The victim identified the cell phone number from which the messages originated and testified that he was the only one who used that number. The judge also found that the recurring spelling errors were typical of the Defendant’s communication style. Similar to handwriting analysis, a texting style can be evident of who is writing the message.  Based on these factors, the trial court judge was within his discretion to allow these text messages into evidence.

Overall, the appellate court found that communication through text is a violation of a 209A restraining order. A domestic violence victim should be free from all communications and threats from the person. Here the Defendant clearly violated this order. This holding is on trend for the many courts across the country including various forms of electronic communication to be seen as a violation of a restraining order.

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