Senate Bill 325, passed during the 86th Legislature and sponsored by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) and Rep. Brooks Landgraf (R-Odessa), launched a state Protective Order Registry. The law mandates that the Office of Court Administration (OCA), in consultation with the Department of Public Safety (DPS), create an online registry for family violence protective orders and applications. State and federal law currently give peace officers access to limited information on issued protective orders. However, the registry will offer statewide access to both applications and orders — including actual images of the documents — for not only peace officers but also for other authorized users in the justice community.
SB 325 is named Monica’s Law, after Monica Deming, a Landgraf constituent who was shot and killed in her Odessa home by her ex-boyfriend. Her father, Jon Nielsen, a former Odessa peace officer, pushed for the legislation after it became clear that his daughter’s killer had two previous protective orders issued against him and that he had been able to easily hide them since there was no centralized database.
The registry will cover protective order applications under Chapter 82 of the Family Code and Article 17.292 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, as well as protective orders under Chapter 83 or 85 of the Family Code and Article 17.292 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The database will consist of two portions: a public section and a section accessible only to authorized users. Those include criminal district attorneys, county attorneys, municipal attorneys, the attorney general, peace officers and certain designated court staff members, such as clerks who are responsible for entering orders and applications into the registry.
A person protected by an order under Chapter 85 of the Family Code may choose to grant the public access to certain information about the order. The public portion of the registry will contain the following information: name, county of residence, birth year and race or ethnicity of the subject; the date the order was issued, as well as the date the order was vacated or expired, as applicable; the case number; and the court that issued the order. The public portion will not include any applications, nor will it include any temporary ex parte orders or magistrate’s orders of emergency protection. This portion of the registry will not allow access to any confidential or sealed information. All information included in this portion is already public information, and the registry simply consolidates that information statewide. If a protected person has chosen to opt in, that individual may later request that the information be removed from public access. Information about the order or application would still be available to authorized users.
Those users may have full access to all information detailed above for every application filed and order issued in the state, including vacated or expired orders. Authorized users will also be able to access copies of applications and orders. They will be able to search the registry by a number of categories, such as county, name and birth year of the subject of the order.
Under SB 325, court clerks are required to enter protective order applications or the orders no later than 24 hours after the application or order is filed or issued. However, a clerk may delay entering the information if he or she does not have the specific data required to be entered. Likewise, the clerk will have 24 hours to enter information into the registry after a court modifies an existing protective order or extends the duration of one.
Originally, SB 325 required OCA to establish the registry no later than June 1, 2020; a provision allowed for a delay of no more than 90 days, contingent upon a resolution by the Texas Judicial Council. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the development of the registry from June 1 until Sept. 1. The Texas Judicial Council permitted that delay, and the registry is now operational. However, the Supreme Court modified the mandate to apply only to protective order applications filed and orders issued on or after Oct. 15. On Sept. 1, the registry became available to counties selected in the initial rollout. Counties in this pilot program have been notified by OCA. Once the initial phase is complete, OCA will roll out the system statewide along with instructions and training for magistrates, court personnel and law enforcement. The public portion of the database will be accessible here.
Unfortunately, one side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has been an increase in family violence offenses. It is hoped that the registry will assist local law enforcement in the swift investigation and prosecution of such offenses, potentially saving individuals in a situation similar to Monica Deming’s.
For additional information on this article, please contact Amy Befeld.