My Boyfriend Is Really Annoying

Can I file a restraining order?

Britney Spears with Adnan Ghalib. Click image to expand.
Britney Spears with Adnan Ghalib

Britney Spears reportedly filed a restraining order against her paparazzo boyfriend, Adnan Ghalib, after discovering that he was tipping off his agency with photo ops. Last Monday, Florida resident Rachelle Washington petitioned for a protective injunction against Patriots’ wide receiver Randy Moss. Under what circumstances can you order an unwanted admirer to get the hell away from you?

Fear of imminent harm. Laws vary somewhat from state to state, but across the country it’s possible to obtain a temporary restraining order by swearing, under oath, that you have reason for alarm. There’s no jury, the alleged harasser need not be present, and the burden of proof is virtually nonexistent; judges issue orders on behalf of anyone with a credible complaint. (“He threatened to hit me and I’m scared” but not “It freaks me out when he stares at me.”) Under these guidelines “my paparazzo boyfriend sold pictures of me” would not pass muster, so either Britney had a more substantial complaint or the latest tabloid tale is just a rumor.

Temporary injunctions have a lifespan of maybe a week or two. Exact terms depend on the situation, but a basic order requires the offending party to stay at least 500 feet away from the victim’s person and property. Occasionally, judges require offenders to surrender any firearms in their possession to local law enforcement. Case in point: Randy Moss was asked to hand over any concealed weapons permits to the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.

After the temporary injunction expires, the victim can try to extend the restraining order in court. At a hearing, both parties are present and the victim must present “clear and convincing” evidence that abuse occurred or is likely to occur. The victim testifies about the harassment she experienced, and may present police reports or dated pictures of injuries. Witnesses who overheard threats or were present during a fight may also testify. Then the accused gets a chance to mount a defense. If the judge rules in the victim’s favor, he’ll issue a long-term restraining order, sometimes called a “final injunction.” In California, where Britney Spears resides, a post-hearing order can last up to five years.

Many states distinguish between restraining orders issued for victims of domestic violence (sometimes called a “protective order”) and other kinds of abuse (a “peace order”). Procedurally, they’re very similar—first a temporary injunction, then a hearing, followed by a long-term order. But protective orders can impose farther-reaching penalties—not just a “stay away” mandate but the forced payment of child support, for example—and may last longer. Furthermore, there are some technical differences in eligibility and in the definition of abuse. In Maryland, for example, protective orders may be issued against current and former spouses, roommates, relatives, or anyone with whom the victim has had a child. Abuse, in such cases, means an act that causes serious bodily harm or places the petitioner in fear of serious harm, rape, or false imprisonment. Peace orders, by contrast, are issued against those who are not intimately related to their victim, and the definition of abuse is broader: It includes stalking, destruction of property, and trespassing.

What happens if you falsify a petition? Probably nothing, since it’s hard to disprove a state of mind. That is, if you claim you’re scared for your life, who’s to say you aren’t? Technically, however, you could be charged with making a false declaration. And what happens if you violate a restraining order? You’d probably face a criminal charge, a suspended sentence contingent on good behavior, and a fine—or possibly a short stay in jail.

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Explainer thanks Katie Buckland of the California Women’s Law Center and Wendy Murphy of the New England School of Law.